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US & Venezuela: a Fragile Détente

For a couple of months I have noted the unprecedented diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Venezuela. Now it is getting some attention in the major media.

“The United States and Venezuela have embarked on their most extensive dialogue in years in an attempt to improve their acrimonious relations, according to a senior U.S. administration official,” Reuters reported this week, citing an unnamed source.

On Thursday afternoon, July 2, just as everyone (including much of the media) was skipping town for the three-day holiday weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement sending his “best wishes to the people of Venezuela as you celebrate 204 years of independence on July 5.”

“I am pleased that we have found common cause in our support for Haiti’s elections, reconstruction, and development, as well as in our shared commitment to the
failedweisbrotColombian government’s ongoing efforts to achieve a lasting peace,” Kerry said. “I look forward to further cooperation between our people and governments as we seek ways to improve a historically strong relationship that has endured for nearly two centuries.”

Remarkably, the statement contained no criticisms or remarks that might be seen as insulting to the Venezuelan government.  I cannot remember seeing a comparable statement about Venezuela from the U.S. Secretary of State for at least 14 years.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this sudden onset of the Age of Aquarius. As I noted last month, efforts to sabotage the diplomatic effort were under way rather soon after it began. There will be more such efforts, and some of the reactions of the right to the Obama administration’s opening to Venezuela could provide a preview.

Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the well-funded, center-right think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was a senior foreign policy advisor and staffer for former Senator Richard Lugar, the six-term Republican from Indiana who was very influential on foreign policy. It was Lugar’s office that torpedoed President Barack Obama’s 2010 attempt to restore ambassadorial relations with Venezuela. So Meacham, who is well connected with State Department officials and others in Washington who are involved in Latin America, is likely to have a good idea what the strategy is for people within and outside the Obama administration who do not want normal relations with Venezuela.

Meacham wrote last month that one of the objectives of the Obama administration’s current overtures is “ensuring the presence of Organization of American States (OAS) and European Union observers in Venezuela’s upcoming parliamentary elections.” But the Obama administration hasn’t said anything about such observers. It is possible that Meacham is saying this because the demand for OAS and EU observers will be part of the right-wing strategy to de-legitimize the upcoming National Assembly elections in December.

The strategy makes sense if the right can convince the media that the demand for OAS and EU observers is a reasonable one, that these observers are likely to provide an independent assessment of the integrity of the election process. However, the OAS has a very mixed track record. In 2000, for example, the OAS reversed its original approval of Haitian parliamentary elections after Washington decided it didn’t like the results. In 2011, also in Haiti, an OAS commission stacked with pro-Washington members took the astounding and unprecedented step of actually reversing the result — not recommending a new election or a recount, as is sometimes done with disputed elections — of a first-round presidential election. These and other interventions by the OAS raise questions about whether an impartial delegation from the OAS could be established, given Washington’s strong influence over the OAS bureaucracy.

Recall that in Venezuela’s presidential election of April 2013, the United States was the last government in the world to recognize the result — and only under pressure from the rest of the region, including Brazil. But there was no doubt about the result. In Venezuela, voters press computer touch-screens and receive printed receipts, which they then deposit in ballot boxes. For a random sample amounting to about half of the total ballots, the paper votes are compared with the electronic tally in the presence of observers and witnesses. In the 2013 election, a statistical analysis showed that the probability of getting the official vote count if the election were actually stolen was less than one in 25,000 trillion.

Yet the White House in 2013 wanted a “recount” before Washington would recognize the result. Given that there were violent opposition street protests at the time seeking to overturn the election results, this was not only dishonest but — until Obama finally gave in — quite a hostile and reckless position to take. This is just one of many episodes, going back to the U.S.-backed military coup of 2002, that help explain why it is difficult for many Venezuelans to trust the U.S. government.

So it won’t be surprising if there are attempts to destroy the White House’s détente initiative that involve conflict over the upcoming elections. But as long as the White House’s new approach lasts, it’s a good thing. With the U.S. scheduled to open an embassy in Cuba on July 20 for the first time in half a century, more Americans and maybe even some of our politicians and journalists might begin to wonder why we can’t have normal relations with Venezuela as well.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

 

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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