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In Washington, warnings not to ease up on Venezuela

Opposition supporters celebrate in Caracas, Venezuela, early Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Venezuela’s opposition has won control of the National Assembly by a landslide.
Opposition supporters celebrate in Caracas, Venezuela, early Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Venezuela’s opposition has won control of the National Assembly by a landslide. AP

The opposition’s historic victory Sunday in Venezuela could help thaw long-chilly relations between the United States and the oil-rich country. But U.S. leaders in Washington such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Florida Republicans, caution this is not the time to ease pressure.

They cited President Nicolás Maduro’s administration, which they charged had stifled political dissent, intimidated voters and jailed opposition leaders, as a reason for a stronger approach.

“Maduro and his followers should accept the will of the Venezuelan people and accept accountability for mismanaging the economy, destroying the rule of law and violating the fundamental rights of countless Venezuelans,” Rubio said.

“I call on the administration to denounce the environment leading up to the elections and impose sanctions on those individuals that caused voting irregularities on election day, a dangerous atmosphere for opposition political parties and a lopsided playing field,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Diaz-Balart also called for sanctions.

“Now is the time to be more vigilant,” he said. “We have to be willing to pressure and to do everything that we can to make sure to protect this opportunity that the Venezuelan people have demanded.”

The South Florida lawmakers’ strong rebuke of the Venezuelan government, along with Venezuelans’ own unresolved internal struggles, demonstrate how difficult any easing of diplomatic relations will be.

Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the people of Venezuela for expressing their desire for change in the direction of their country and promised to support a new dialogue between the different sectors of the government.

But his predecessor, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, took a more forceful tack, charging that more needs to be done to help the Venezuelan people.

It is tragic that a country that was once one of the wealthiest in the world has been so mismanaged and that people have been so oppressed and mistreated.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

“It is tragic that a country that was once one of the wealthiest in the world has been so mismanaged and that people have been so oppressed and mistreated,” she said Monday.

The top Venezuelan diplomat in the United States, Maximilien Arvelaiz, said it was too early to determine how the election would affect efforts to improve ties with the United States. But he said it needed to be noted that allegations against the Venezuelan government about unfair elections and rigged elections were unfounded.

“All these weeks people have been saying the government didn’t want the elections to take place. And yesterday, people had the opportunity to express their views; that’s what’s most important,” said Arvelaiz, the Venezuelan ambassador-designate.

Gregory Weeks, chairman of the department of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, said the consensus in the region was that the elections were “at least clean enough.”

He noted that Argentine President-elect Mauricio Macri had backtracked on comments that he’d seek to suspend Venezuela from South America’s Mercosur trade bloc.

“There are still going to be questions about Leopoldo Lopez being in jail. There are still going to be questions about corruption. There are still going to be questions about drug trafficking,” Weeks said.

“But I have to think that the elections themselves are going to take away some of the pressing nature of what the U.S. conservatives were saying was a country on the brink of disaster. Now the opposition has an opportunity to play its own role.”

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-0010, @francoordonez

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