Get tough on Hugo Chávez, GOP senators tell Hillary Clinton

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a group of Republican senators called for a harder line against Venezuela's Hugo Chávez over allegations of human rights abuses.

Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures as he evaluates with the progress of "Battalla Bolivar 200" (Bolivar Battle 200) with members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in Caracas on July 14. The "Battalla Bolivar 200" consists of a group of campaign coordinators tasked with establishing a "patrol" presence in every electoral center.

A group of Republican senators is asking Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to get tough with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez over what they say are the South American leftist’s accelerating human rights abuses.

Citing a “deepening deterioration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela" that they claim could destabilize the country and have “serious consequences” for US interests, the senators want Secretary Clinton to test the regional appetite for invoking the Organization of American States’ Democratic Charter against Venezuela, an OAS member.

The senators may also be seeking to test the Obama administration’s own appetite for initiating a confrontation with Venezuela. The administration has generally applied a pragmatic approach to Mr. Chávez and sought to tone down the rhetorical war that periodically flares between the two countries.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Clinton, the senators list several examples of “worsening conditions” for Venezuela’s civil society and political opposition, including the December arrest and ongoing detention of a judge whose parole of a jailed business leader infuriated Chávez. The letter also cites the “judicial harassment” of Globovision, considered Venezuela’s sole remaining independent TV station, and a February report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights detailing numerous examples of rights violations in Venezuela.

Signing the two-page letter were Republican lawmakers George LeMieux of Florida, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oaklahoma, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and James Risch of Idaho. Joining the Republican senators was Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

While many human rights organizations have reported on a deterioration of certain rights in Venezuela under Chávez, some experts say the situation reflects a trend existing in other countries in the region. And they see little regional desire or unity for addressing the attacks on rights.

The letter is a “cry of frustration” about Venezuela, but one with little chance of finding an enthusiastic reception in the region, says Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.

“Unless and until the hemispheric community develops a more effective response to the slow erosion of democracy in the region,” he says, “we’re going to see these signs of frustration continue.”

Mr. Farnsworth sees little prospect of the OAS invoking its Democratic Charter, created in 2001, against Venezuela. That’s especially true, he adds, in light of the hemispheric organization’s inability to resolve its differences over the status of Honduras.

The US has sought the reinstatement of Honduras to the OAS, after the Central American country was ousted in 2009 over a military coup. The US argues that elections resulting in a new president mean Honduras deserves readmission, but other countries – including Venezuela – insist full “democracy” must first be restored.

The senators’ letter will draw fresh attention to the region’s unequal response to threats to democracy – and perhaps a fiery reaction from Chávez – but probably little else, Farnsworth says.

“There’s been an open question for about a year over why the hemispheric community would come down like a ton of bricks on Honduras, but pay no attention to other signs of the deterioration of democracy, whether in Venezuela or in Honduras’s next-door neighbor, Nicaragua,” he says.

Another factor is that the Obama administration is unlikely to relish disturbing the pragmatic approach it’s developed toward Venezuela, particularly in matters involving the energy sector, Farnsworth says.

“They’ve made an effort not to antagonize the Venezuelan regime,” he says, “so it seems doubtful that seeking action from an unresponsive hemispheric community is the first thing Secretary Clinton is going to want to do.”


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