Venezuela Stirs Heated Debate in U.S. Congress

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee convened for a hearing Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. The session opened with harsh remarks regarding the Venezuelan President. But in defiance of Committee leadership, a small group of Democrats ardently challenged the anti-Chavez status quo.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee convened for a hearing entitled ‘Democracy in Latin America, Successes, Challenges and the Future.’ Despite the encompassing title, matters quickly boiled down to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Chairman Henry Hyde (Republican-Illinois) and ranking Democrat Tom Lantos opened the session with harsh remarks regarding the Venezuelan President. Similar slander was forthcoming from expert panelists and the conservative majority. But in defiance of Committee leadership, a small group of Democrats ardently challenged the anti-Chavez status quo.

Representative Lantos’ opening remarks attacking President Chavez were some of the most venomous.

“Democracy’s foundations have been systematically undermined by a demagogic leader [Chavez], bent on opposing democratic values and interests. To the discerning observer, the facade of democracy Chavez has erected cannot hide the destruction he has brought on democratic principles and fundamental freedoms.”

The California democrat went on to accuse President Chavez of everything from supporting terrorism and the drug trade, to oppressing the opposition and intervening in neighboring nations. Rep. Lantos cited last year’s legislative elections as proof of Chavez’s undemocratic nature. “Candidates subservient to Chavez won every seat just like the old Soviet elections” he declared. Rep. Lantos indicated that voter lists were used to deny opposition supporters employment, even food and medical attention. In addition, he accused Chavez of financing candidates in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

“Chavez has created a one party state with his authoritarian regime consolidated. Chavez turned his attention and his country’s considerable oil wealth to increasing his stature at the expense of his Latin American neighbors and our own [U.S.] national interests.”

His tirade concluded:

“To insure the recently elected and soon to be elected Presidents of Latin America are not pressured into accepting the oil slick promises of dictators with dollars, we must reengage with the region.”

Representative Barbara Lee of California followed with a respite from the slander.

“It’s obvious there are points of disagreement regarding the U.S. interpretation of democracy and national sovereignty. History has shown positive engagement is far more successful than isolation, and American intervention in the affairs of many sovereign nations has only hastened the deterioration of democracy. We cannot make the cry of ‘undemocratic’ in strategic locations, after looking the other way in others.”

Representative Gregory Meeks of New York followed with the assembly’s most impassioned remarks.

“We cannot talk about Latin America without talking about the twin issues of democracy and poverty. And too often poverty is democracy’s parasite. If we are truly going to do something as the U.S. government, as opposed to taking sides, or pointing fingers and suggesting this leader is more democratic than that leader, we need to look at what we can do to eradicate poverty in Latin America. We have not done that yet.

He continued:

“You have a whole host of individuals, particularly Afro-Latinos throughout Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela, who have always been at the bottom no matter who the leader has been. They understand the key to a better tomorrow is to make sure there is not a trickle down, but a trickle up”

The subsequent presenters included Paula Dobriansky—Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs—and Adolfo Franco—Assistant Administrator for U.S. AID—who returned to the anti-Chavez theme. “What we have witnessed in Venezuela is an elected official who is pursuing anti-democratic measures.” Dobriansky proclaimed. Interestingly, when questioned on what was being done to counter the alleged “millions and millions” of Venezuelans dollars influencing elections in Nicaragua, the Under Secretary revealed, “thirteen million dollars have been spent on poll watchers and providing assistance to political parties, insuring there will be a level playing field.” Mr. Franco followed by denouncing Venezuelan influence in the region, while defending the intervention efforts of the Bush administration.

This provoked Rep. Meeks to respond:

“I’m thinking this is just a hearing to beat up on Venezuela. Why is there populism? Because the people on the bottom at least want someone to talk about them. Look at the rampant racial discrimination in these countries, yet we do nothing about it.  But we have to fight in trade agreements to get trade capacity money to help people build, so they can have a better tomorrow. We fight and resist and give them as little as we can.”

“I’ve been to places in Colombia with no roads, no water, or sewage, what does democracy mean to them? And they have polls to show they would take a dictator if it made a difference in their lives. We can’t just talk the talk, that there needs to be elections. That elections are the end all. Truly, there were elections in Venezuela. I witnessed many of them. I wish people in my district would come out the way they come out in Venezuela. On both sides. You were there Mr. Franco!”

“There was a coup attempt in Venezuela, the most undemocratic process there is. We didn’t say democracy must prevail. What we said was we will accept this new government. And then we talk about democracy, and wonder why people laugh at us and don’t take us serious.”

Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California retorted:

“In Venezuela they have had ample money and ample corruption with their democratic leaders and yes, Mr. Chavez will bring nothing but misery to his people. He will not bring higher standards of living. When you eliminate the balance of power as Mr. Chavez is doing in Venezuela today, it will make matters worse not better.”

Representative Jerry Weller of Illinois joined in:

“There is an estimated 3-17 billion dollars in Venezuelan oil money sloshing around Latin America, corrupting government officials, undermining democratic governments through the funding of street movements. We have even seen direct threats against the people of a country, as in the Peruvian elections if they elected someone other than Chavez’s choice.”

Representative Weller proceeded to show photos of earth moving trucks and Nicaraguan presidential candidate Daniel Ortega exiting a Helicopter. Rep. Weller asserted President Chavez has sent tons of fertilizer to Nicaragua in order to buy influence, while also supplying the Ortega campaign with helicopters.

Representative Delahunt of Massachusetts snapped:

“You’re showing pictures of fertilizer; we have overthrown governments there! We have a historical legacy we have to deal with, and we wonder why they don’t trust us. We had to apologize to Guatemala in 1998 because we were implicated in a genocide there, and you’re worried about fertilizer. We should be sitting down with every nation that has a democratic leader in this hemisphere and laying out some new rules about respect for sovereignty and non-interference.”

The hearing concluded as it began, with Venezuela as the topic of discussion. And despite Committee leader’s best attempts to assemble an anti–Chavez forum, Representatives Meeks, Delahunt, and Lee brought a degree of balance to the congressional floor. Although clearly in the minority, the liberal democrats were able to emphasize the importance of poverty eradication, provide keen perspective on hemispheric intervention, and to expose inconsistencies in U.S. support for Latin American democracy.  No legislative measures were taken and glaring problems in the rest of the hemisphere were largely ignored, but Venezuela continues to drive the important debate on democracy in the U.S. Congress.