In February the U.S. took several measures that seem to indicate a more aggressive approach towards the Venezuelan government. The most significant measure thus far has been the Department of the Treasury’s designation of Venezuela’s Executive Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, as a drug kingpin and the freezing of his assets in the U.S. According to a Department’s statement, this action was “the culmination of a multi-year investigation” into El Aissami. In late February, the Senate passed a resolution expressing “profound concern about the ongoing political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.” The resolution called on the Venezuelan government to allow humanitarian aid into the country, restore the dialogue with the opposition, release political prisoners, and solve the political crisis through constitutional and democratic means. The Senate also urged President Donald Trump to hold Venezuelan officials “accountable for violations of United States law and abuses of internationally recognized human rights.”
The resolution followed a letter to the President signed by Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla) and 32 other lawmakers. In the letter, they asked the President to take a tougher stance towards Venezuelan government officials who have violated human rights and accused El Aissami of having ties to terrorist organizations. They cited reports by American Interest and the Wall Street Journal alleging that the Vice President “is suspected of having issued passports to members of Hamas and Hezbollah” when he headed the agency in charge of Venezuelan passports (ONIDEX). In separate speeches to Congress, Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) again mentioned the existence of ties between the Venezuelan Vice President and terrorist groups in the Middle East. The repeating accusations against El Aissami seem to be part of an effort by a group of legislators to build support for U.S. intervention to change the government in Venezuela.
The U.S. has already imposed targeted sanctions against individuals who have committed human rights violations in Venezuela, Venezuelan companies that have done business with Iran, and individuals who have provided support for Hezbollah. The difference in the case against El Aissami is that he is not a private citizen but the Executive Vice President and the first in line to succeed President Nicolás Maduro, raising concerns about possible ties between the Venezuelan government and terrorist groups. This concerns give the most vociferous critics of the Maduro government the opportunity to ask the new administration for direct U.S. involvement in Venezuelan.
As troubling as the accusations against El Aissami are, they appear to be exaggerated. A report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service acknowledges that late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz (1999-2013) established economic agreements with Iran and that Hezbollah supporters were in Venezuela during his time in office. However, the report explains that since Chavéz’s death in 2013 and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s departure from office the same year, relations between the two countries and between Iran and Latin America have dwindled. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and Shannon O’Neil, a Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is no substantive evidence for the claims that Islamic terrorist groups have been operating in Venezuela.
Additionally, Smilde and Geoff Ramsey explain that there is no compelling evidence that El Aissami was giving Venezuelan passports to terrorists. They recognize there are basis for the claim that El Aissami has ties to drug trafficking, Hezbollah and Hamas. However, Smilde and Ramsey argue that the claim “should be investigated and weighed with evidence.” Passport fraud, they point out, “is a long standing security issue and not in any way limited to Venezuela.” Furthermore, Venezuelans need a visa to enter the U.S. As a Venezuelan, I can attest that the process to obtain a visa is difficult and not always successful. I have friends who were denied tourist visas. I also saw visa applicants at the embassy in Caracas whose petitions were denied. All of these before the increase in travel restrictions to the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks. A Venezuelan passport—especially a false one—is not the best document to enter the U.S. The accusations against El Aissami are worrisome and deserve to be examined further. But, the insistent reiteration that he has provided false Venezuelan passports to terrorist to try to compel the U.S. government to take more aggressive measures against Venezuela is unsettling, particularly as they have increased since a new administration was inaugurated in Washington.
Trump’s idea that U.S. “military dominance must be unquestioned” and his proposal to increase military spending signal a more belligerent foreign policy than his predecessor’s. With regard to the Maduro government, the administration’s policies could also be determined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s past relations with Venezuela. During Tillerson’s tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil, relations between the oil giant and Venezuela became tense. In 2007, Chávez nationalized the oil industry and seized the company’s assets. ExxonMobil took the case to World Bank arbitration demanding $10 billion in compensation. But in a March 9 decision, the World Bank cancelled portions of the $1.6 billion compensation the tribunal had awarded the oil company in 2014. Another dispute arose in 2015 when Maduro renewed Venezuela’s territorial claims over waters off the coast of Guyana where ExxonMobil had discovered oil reserves estimated at 1.4 billion barrels of oil.
Although Tillerson does not seem to be looking for retaliation, the disputes ExxonMobil had with Venezuela may negatively influence the Secretary’s outlook towards the country. Tillerson could advocate for U.S. intervention to effect political change in Venezuela. This could come in the form of stronger sanctions, the arrest of officials accused of drug trafficking, and—in the worst case scenario—military intervention if the Venezuelan government is suspected of supporting terrorist organizations. As Rubio stated in his speech to Congress, the U.S. considers it to be an “outrage that the vice president of a country in our hemisphere (is) in the business of selling passports and travel documents to people with links to terrorism.” As mentioned above, the evidence supporting this claim is weak. However, it would not be the first time a group of politicians uses less than reliable evidence as an excuse to send U.S. troops to another country.
Direct intervention in Venezuela’s political process would have disastrous consequences for the future stability of the country. Foreign intervention could bring rapid but short-lived change. It would delegitimize any type of political transition, weakening support for which ever government comes next. The new government would be seen as the imposition of a foreign power, not the will of the Venezuelan people. U.S. intervention would also play into the official rhetoric of “imperialist plots” to overthrow Maduro and eradicate Chavismo. This would alienate the many people who still identify as Chavista. People who feel alienated from the political process, who feel their voices have been silenced will find a way to express their discontent and to make their demands. They will seek a way to take back the reins of the political process, usually through less than democratic and peaceful means. This situation is what made Chávez so popular after his failed coup in 1992 and later propel him to the presidency.
Like the majority of Venezuelans, I want a solution to the crisis. I want a peaceful transition, elections, political stability, the release of political prisoners, and an end to corruption, crime, and medicine and food shortages. As O’Neil and Mark Feierstein, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the solution to the political and economic crisis has to come from inside Venezuela. Change in the country has to be effected by the Venezuelan people. Foreign involvement should only come in the form of diplomatic efforts to achieve democratic change, not through aggressive intervention.
The situation in Venezuela is dire, which makes the long and arduous work of diplomacy and change from within seem like the least appealing option. But, democracy is difficult. Long-lasting peace and stability is not achieved in a day, a month, or a year, sometimes not even a decade. If we want to revive the democratic and economic promise that Venezuela once was, we—Venezuelans—have to find a solution to the crisis. Change cannot come through drastic measures but by forcing the government to abide by the Constitution, hold elections, and respect the results. This long and strenuous path is the one that offers the most promise for the future stability of the country.