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Senate Hearing Farce: Venezuela is a ‘Clear and Present Danger’

Lawmakers squandered the chance to ask how we can be engaged in regime change policy during a crippling pandemic at home.
Senate Hearing Farce: Venezuela is a ‘Clear and Present Danger’

It was never more evident that both the Republican and Democratic parties have the same policy on Venezuela then during Tuesday’s Senate hearing on “Venezuela’s Security and Humanitarian Issues.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a rare opportunity to ask important questions of the man responsible for Venezuela policy, special envoy Elliott Abrams, also known as the “neocon zombie” by officials at the State Department. 

Instead, they squandered the chance to question why the U.S. is busy involving themselves in the politics of Venezuela when its under the throes of the coronavirus pandemic at home, and instead asked Abrams how the US could better counter the creeping influence of “malign powers” that trade with Venezuela like Russia, China, and Turkey.

Despite a remarkable story from May that an American — a Bronze Star Green Beret — led a failed armed coup against the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, not a single Senator asked what the U.S. government knew about the coup beforehand, whether any U.S. funds were involved, and why nothing was done to squash this outlandish and embarrassing attempt at regime change. Senators also failed to ask about the provenance of the Americans that participated in the raid and are, presumably, still rotting in Venezuelan jails.

The lack of questions about what the U.S. knew are even more troubling given that Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) sent letters requesting this information on May 7.

But Sen. Murphy no longer had curiosity about the answers at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, his objections to the Trump administration’s policy, as laid out on Twitter and during the hearing, appear to be that we didn’t regime-change hard enough.

“I feel like it’s groundhog day in this committee,” said Murphy. “We’ve been told by the administration, frankly multiple administrations for years, that Russia’s support for Assad and Iran’s support is fragile, it’s just a matter of time before he falls… The truth of the matter is, they were always willing to do more than we were in Syria to protect their interests. And that is likely the exact same case here in Venezuela.

“So our policy has been misguided by fundamentally flawed assumptions from the beginning … but we just have to be clear that our Venezuela policy over the last year and a half has been an unmitigated disaster,” said Murphy. “And if we’re not honest about that, then we can’t self-correct.”

“We have to admit that our big play, recognizing Guaido right out of the gate, and then moving quickly to implement sanctions, just didn’t work.  It didn’t. All it did was harden Russia and Cuba’s play in Venezuela and allow Maduro to paint Guaido as an American patsy,” he said. “We could have used the prospect of US recognition or sanctions as leverage. We could have spent more time trying to get European allies and other partners on the same page. We could have spent more time trying to talk to or neutralize China and Russia early, before we backed them into a corner, a corner from which they’re not moving… but all we did was play all our cards on day one.”

Murphy then recited a list of the mistakes he believes the US made towards Venezuela — incredibly, the failed May coup against Maduro by the former U.S. special operations officer doesn’t even make the list.

Almost universally, Senators endorsed more sanctions and more harsh punishments for companies and countries that trade with Venezuela, even while bemoaning that 5 million Venezuelans have been forced to flee their country on account of starvation and poverty.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) even asked Abrams whether it might be a good idea for the US to blockade fuel coming in from Cuba. Abrams responded by reminding Romney that a military blockade would be an act of war, “and we have chosen not to do that.”

Our inaction is essentially a “freebie for Russia,” said Abrams.

Romney quickly latched on to the phrase: “it is in our interest to assure that it’s not a freebie for Russia,” he concluded with emphasis.

The main takeaway that the Senators seemed most concerned about was that Venezuela will soon have elections which will not be free or fair and that Maduro will likely win them again. Guaido, who the U.S. backed, is not even participating. Almost offhand, Abrams suggested we know that Venezuela won’t have fair elections because “there are today in Venezuela zero voting machines. Zero.”

“They’ve prevented a large number of people from running. They’ve taken over several of the largest political parties, simply replaced the leadership of the parties and given all the parties assets, offices, the party symbols to people the regime chooses,” said Abrams. “So how they’re going to do this I think defies comprehension… this is going to be another fraud.”

Of course, the US held free and fair elections for decades without voting machines — through the use of ballot boxes.

Only Senator Paul asked a question about Abram’s stance on regime change, but he obscured the question with a long riff about socialism and didn’t follow up when Abrams gave what Paul deemed a “non-answer.”

“I don’t think the main problem in Venezuela is that one party or another is a member of the Socialist International, which a lot of partners of ours in Europe are and have been. It’s that it’s a vicious, brutal, murderous dictatorship,” said Abrams.

Paul asked Abrams whether he believed the U.S. government, or the U.S. president, has the right to militarily bring about regime change in Venezuela, without the authority of Congress.

“That’s not our policy,” said Abrams, without commenting on his personal views.

Paul then asked Abrams whether he would still support the Iraq War today.

“Senator, I haven’t thought about the Iraq War in years because I’m in this job, trying to deal with..,” responded Abrams.

“Sounds like another non-answer,” quipped Paul.

No other senators followed up with questions about Abrams’ personal support for regime change. Those views are extremely relevant because Abrams advises the President, and because of Abrams’ history. When he served as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, Abrams concealed a massacre of a thousand men, women, and children by U.S.-funded death squads in El Salvador. He was also involved in the Iran Contra scandal, helping to secure covert funding for Contra rebels in Nicaragua in violation of laws passed by Congress. In 1991, he pled guilty to lying to Congress about the America’s role in those two fiascos—twice. After then-president George H.W. Bush pardoned Abrams, he went on to support “measures to scuttle the Latin American peace process launched by the Costa Rican president, Óscar Arias” and use “the agency’s money to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s 1990 general elections,” according to Brian D’Haeseleer. And all that happened before he urged President George W. Bush to support regime change in Iraq.

The hearing took an almost farcical turn when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) recited a long list of internal problems within Venezuela, including drug and human trafficking and illegal mining, and the 5 million Venezuelan refugees that have flooded Colombia and surrounding states.

“If I look at all that, it sounds like Venezuela is a clear and present danger to the United States,” said Menendez.

“To the United States, and to its neighbors,” replied Abrams.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of U.S. policy towards Venezuela: they are a “clear and present danger.”

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