Secretary of State John Kerry has plenty of bilateral issues to discuss on a two-day trip to Mexico starting Wednesday – including the case of a US Marine held in a Mexican jail since late March for carrying firearms across the border.
But when he sits down with Mexican officials, the top US diplomat is expected to address deepening turmoil in Venezuela and ideas for how the hemisphere can help divided Venezuelans resolve their political and economic crisis.
Congress is poised to approve targeted sanctions against Venezuelan authorities implicated in human rights abuses committed over the recent months of antigovernment demonstrations, and Mr. Kerry is taking with him a growing sense of urgency in the Obama administration that Venezuela must be helped to step back from the brink of a broader conflict.
In what is his first trip as secretary to the United States’ southern neighbor, Kerry is set to meet with Mexican Foreign Secretary José Antonio Meade and later Wednesday with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Both the US and Mexico have supported an initiative by Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador to broker talks between the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders, but that effort appears to be foundering amid renewed violence over the past week in the capital, Caracas. US officials believe a broader hemispheric initiative could be more able to bring the distrustful sides to the table, and Kerry likely will be seeking Mexican support for that idea.
The Obama administration has opposed imposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials at this point, preferring to give regional diplomatic efforts a chance to help resolve the crisis.
But the failure of the regional initiative to make any real headway has fueled congressional support for sanctions. On Tuesday the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee approved a sanctions bill that committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey said is necessary because “the light of freedom is threatened” in the Americas by the actions of the Venezuelan government.
“Today we took an important step forward to punish human rights abusers in Nicolas Maduro’s regime,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a co-sponsor of the bill and key proponent of a provision to provide $15 million to pro-democracy groups and media in Venezuela. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has already approved similar legislation.
Administration officials say imposing sanctions would send the wrong message when the US should be focused on encouraging dialogue – a perspective many experts in hemispheric relations support. The State Department’s top Americas diplomat, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, even told Congress in recent testimony that Venezuelan opposition leaders don't want the US to impose sanctions – before backtracking later and acknowledging that claim was “wrong.”
US sanctions risk doing little more than giving the leftist-nationalist Mr. Maduro – heir of the fiery Hugo Chávez, who fed a decade of poor relations with the US – an excuse to dismiss the country’s turmoil as US-inspired, some experts say. Maduro has already lost no opportunity to label the opposition and protesters as US-backed reactionaries attempting to bring down an elected government.
David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says sanctions would prompt the government to turn a domestic crisis into a Caracas-Washington conflict. And all that would do, he adds, is allow Maduro to deflect attention from the legitimate concerns the opposition is raising, including security forces’ human rights violations.
Earlier this month Human Rights Watch issued a report chronicling a variety of abuses committed by security forces, including cases of torture. The New York-based organization concluded from its findings that the authorities’ “repressive tactics” aimed not to restore order but to “punish people for their perceived political views.”
At least 42 people have died in months of protests and hundreds have been detained.
Other regional analysts back the the Obama administration's position that the focus at this point must be on efforts to foster dialogue. In a report issued Wednesday that warns Venezuela is at a “tipping point,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) calls for the naming of an “international facilitator,” perhaps by the United Nations, to assist the South American and Vatican diplomats already promoting a government-opposition dialogue.
“The crisis in Venezuela cannot be managed without external help,” says Javier Ciurlizza, ICG’s Latin America Program director.
Kerry will also address bilateral trade and education issues while in Mexico, so it’s unclear how much time he’ll spend on the case of Andrew Tahmooressi, the 25-year-old Marine being held in a Mexican jail and facing up to 21 years in prison for entering Mexico with firearms.
Mr. Tahmooressi’s family insists the Afghanistan war veteran made a wrong turn outside San Ysidro, Calif., and mistakenly entered Mexico with three legally purchased and registered weapons.
But Mexico is extremely sensitive about firearms entering the country from the US, with studies showing that the vast majority of weapons used by drug gangs and other criminals originate north of the border.
The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee used the opportunity of Kerry’s visit Wednesday to demand a redoubling of US efforts to reduce the flow of weapons into Mexico.
Noting that a 2009 Government Accountability Office study found that 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities from 2004-08 were traced back to the US, Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York said, “We must do much more to stop the illegal flow of firearms from the US to Mexico.”