Secretary of State John Kerry has told the US Senate that the United States will insist that “any new elections [in Venezuela] should be democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and transparent and must respect the universal human rights of the Venezuelan people.” Kerry made this pledge in writing in response to a question submitted during consideration of his nomination. It will soon be published by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Anticipating the death or incapacitation of Venezuela’s cancer-stricken leader Hugo Chávez, Kerry said, “The Venezuelan constitution and the Inter-American Democratic Charter should define the way ahead.” The new chief US diplomat also pledged to “support the strengthening of democratic institutions, respect for freedom of expression, rule of law, and the protection of human rights.”
Kerry has also committed to make counternarcotics and counterterrorism cooperation a priority in any future bilateral relationship with Venezuela, along with the traditional issues of commerce and energy.
The new secretary of state has his work cut out for him in promoting democracy, human rights, and anti-drug efforts in Venezuela. The State Department’s recent annual human rights report included a blunt critique of Venezuela under the Chavista regime:
The principal human rights abuses […] included government actions to impede freedom of expression and criminalize dissent. The government harassed and intimidated privately owned television stations, other media outlets, and journalists throughout the year, using threats, fines, property seizures, targeted regulations, and criminal investigations and prosecutions. The government did not respect judicial independence or permit judges to act according to the law without fear of retaliation. The government used the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute political, union, business, and civil society leaders who were critical of government policies or actions.
There is ample evidence that Venezuela has become a narcostate under Chávez, with the most senior military officers and political leaders of the regime implicated in narcotrafficking.
US officials have fresh, compelling information implicating Chávez, his head of the National Assembly (Diosdado Cabello Rondón), his former defense minister (Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva), his army chief (Cliver Alcalá Cordones), and his newly appointed deputy interior minister (Hugo Carvajal), and dozens of other senior military officials in cocaine trafficking.
In addition, Venezuela has provided weapons, safe haven, and logistical, financial, and political support to Hezbollah and Colombian terrorist groups. The Chávez regime also continues to violate international sanctions by providing substantial material assistance to the rogue governments of Iran and Syria.
Secretary of State Kerry assumes his duties just as career US foreign service officers were opening back-channel talks to the Chávez regime in an effort to “normalize” relations by exchanging ambassadors. Only after the matter was made public did the State Department mention drug cooperation as one objective of these talks. Any unconditional restoration of bilateral ties now would wade into the middle of a succession struggle, legitimize a hostile and despotic regime, interfere with ongoing US law enforcement investigations, and undercut democratic demands being made by the internal opposition.
In light of Secretary Kerry’s forthright commitments to the US Senate, he will now have to make a clear and sober assessment of the state of affairs in Venezuela to decide whether US human rights, anti-drug, and counterterrorism priorities will be truly served by rushing to recognize a Chávez successor.