The multiple crises faced by the United States, such as the Gaza crisis, the expansion of the Islamic State of Syria (ISIS), the Levant in Iraq and Syria, and the Russian takeover of the Crimea as well its offensive in Eastern Ukraine, have pushed Latin America further to the margins of our foreign policy.
However, the reality is that even in times of fewer crises, not much attention has been paid to events that have already transformed the region and constitute a threat to U.S. security. The rise of Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela; its assault on the establishment of an elected authoritarian state; violations of human rights in the country; the expansion of its ideology and model regime to other countries in the region; the alliances between the revolution with Iran, Hezbollah, the drug cartels, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have all been dismissed or ignored by the foreign policy establishment and the last two administrations.
Congress, on occasion, paid attention to the issue. In 2012 legislation was passed, known as “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012.” This act required the United States to counter Iran’s growing presence and hostile activity in the Western Hemisphere.
However, shortly after protests in Venezuela began this February, a number of members of both parties in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation aimed at imposing sanctions on individuals who committed human rights violations in Venezuela. This came as a result of the harsh repression carried out by the Venezuelan government against dissidents.
In the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced the “Venezuela Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act.” In the Senate, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a similar bill entitled the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014.” Both bills impose targeted sanctions on persons responsible for violations of human rights of anti-government protesters in Venezuela and hold them accountable for their abuses and crimes.
Those sanctions include freezing of assets and travel restrictions to the United States. The bill also calls to strengthen civil society in Venezuela and to work in concert with countries in the region as well as with countries of the European Union to help Venezuela reach a peaceful solution.
The bill was quickly passed in the House in May. The Senate is still hesitating. Although the majority of U.S. Senators support the bill, Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., placed a hold on it before the August recess.
At this point she is holding the bill because she wants to check first if these sanctions could affect the 2,000 jobs that CITGO provides to residents of Louisiana who work in the refineries of Venezuelan heavy oil located in this southern state.
Hopefully, it will not take Sen. Landrieu too much time to realize that limited sanctions are unlikely to affect jobs in her state.
But the problem turns even more serious if we note that the bill is being held because CITGO — which is a subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSA — raised concerns that the sanctions could hurt the company’s ability to import crude oil to the refineries located in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
According to various reports, the laundering of drug money has been carried out through PDVSA, to whom CITGO belongs.
CITGO is not just another regular independent company lobbying the U.S. government. CITGO literally belongs to and represents the Venezuelan government, which is hostile to the U.S. The prospect of CITGO effectively influencing the U.S. government is frightening
Venezuela’s animosity toward the U.S. is not just rhetoric but real applied policy. Venezuela and some of its allies have removed the presence of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from their countries, expelled the U.S. ambassador, and fundamentally changed their attitude toward the U.S.
Venezuela is heavily involved in the drug trade. Hugo Carvajal, a former Venezuelan chief of military intelligence, was charged by a U.S. federal court, along with other accomplices, of conspiring with Colombian drug traffickers to export cocaine to the U.S.
In addition, there were charges against them for distribution of cocaine to the U.S, conspiracy to obstruct justice, money laundering, and extortion. Carvajal is accused of protecting drug shipments from FARC. He also provided the rebel group with weapons Venezuela received from Russia, and logistical help.
Likewise, Venezuela remains the only country in Latin America that willingly makes its ports and airports available to drug cartels.
Furthermore, the Venezuelan government has established alliances with U.S. enemies such as Iran and with terrorist groups such as FARC, Hezbollah, and the Basque ETA.
It is crucial that this bill is passed for many reasons. It may not effectively stop human rights violations or stop Venezuela’s ill-intended foreign policy. However, these sanctions should be an important first step since it will place the threat of Venezuela and its accomplices in our national agenda. For too long we have ignored this very serious problem.
Luis Fleischman has worked as adviser for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy on issues related to Latin America. He is the author of "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security." Fleischman is an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Florida Atlantic University Honors College and FAU Lifelong Learning Society.
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