A Rebuttal to Senator Kerry’s Statement on Venezuela

The probable Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. Presidency, Senator John Kerry, recently issued a statement on Venezuela that sounds as if it was written by Venezuela's opposition. Greg Wilpert presents a sentence-by-sentence critique of the statement.

Senator Kerry’s press statement on Venezuela was issued on March 19, 2004.

Italic text is Senator Kerry’s statement. Plain text is Gregory Wilpert’s rebuttal.

With the future of the democratic process at a critical juncture in Venezuela, we should work to bring all possible international pressure to bear on President Chavez to allow the referendum to proceed.

It is not up to President Chavez whether there is a referendum. Venezuela’s constitution clearly establishes rules that must be followed for a referendum to be called. The president has nothing to do with this procedure. If Kerry has any evidence that Chavez is preventing the referendum process from proceeding, then he should spell out what it is that he has done.

The [Bush] Administration should demonstrate its true commitment to democracy in Latin America by showing determined leadership now, while a peaceful resolution can still be achieved.

U.S. interference in Venezuela’s referendum process will distort and damage Venezuela’s democracy more than help it. If there is outside interference, it is more likely that the results of the process will not be recognized as legitimate  by one of the sides in the conflict and this would probably lead to violence, not to “a peaceful resolution.”

Throughout his time in office, President Chavez has repeatedly undermined democratic institutions by using extra-legal means, including politically motivated incarcerations, to consolidate power.

How does Kerry know that the incarcerations of some protestors were politically motivated? As the cases stand right now, it has not been clearly established that any of the arrests that have occurred during the recent spate of violent protests involved people who were innocent of all charges. As the cases proceed and come to trial, there will be plenty of opportunities to find out if this was the case. To prejudge the arrests as Sen. Kerry does, does not help.

In fact, his close relationship with Fidel Castro has raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic government.

If relationships with undemocratic rulers are enough to question a leader’s commitment to democracy, then the commitment to democracy of just about every president in U.S. history must be questioned.

Moreover, President Chavez’s policies have been detrimental to our interests and those of his neighbors.

Exactly what “our interests” is is of course a much disputed issue. If it includes Venezuela’s opposition to the WTO and the FTAA, then, indeed, President Chavez’ interests have been detrimental to U.S. interests. However, many in the U.S. and in Latin America would argue that these institutions are not in the U.S. interest, but only in the interest of transnational corporations, such as the one that Senator Kerry’s wife is heiress to (Heinz Ketchup). Besides, governments are not there to pursue U.S. interests anyway, no matter where they are; only national and human interests.

He has compromised efforts to eradicate drug cultivation by allowing Venezuela to become a haven for narco-terrorists, and sowed instability in the region by supporting anti-government insurgents in Colombia.

Sen. Kerry stands in direct contradiction with U.S. government testimony that says that the Venezuelan government has been very cooperative with US drug enforcement agencies. More drugs have been intercepted by the Chavez government than any previous government. While this could reflect in increase in drug trafficking in Venezuela, it proves that Venezuela’s government has far from “compromised efforts.”[1]

Even the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. James Hill, who is directly involved in plan Colombia and the U.S. anti-drug trafficking effort, has denied that there is any evidence of connections between the Venezuelan government and “anti-government insurgents” in Colombia.[2] If Senator Kerry has any evidence of such connections, he should provide them to the U.S. military so that they might be properly informed.

The referendum has given the people of Venezuela the opportunity to express their views on his presidency through constitutionally legitimate means.

Perhaps it would have been good to mention at this point that the recall referendum was proposed by President Chavez and his party when the country’s constitutional assembly wrote the new constitution. This fact directly contradicts Sen. Kerry’s questioning of President Chavez’ democratic credentials.

The international community cannot allow President Chavez to subvert this process, as he has attempted to do thus far.

Without mentioning concrete examples of President Chavez’ supposed efforts to “subvert” the referendum process, Sen. Kerry’s statement is pure innuendo that intends to slander a head of state.

He must be pressured to comply with the agreements he made with the OAS and the Carter Center to allow the referendum to proceed, respect the exercise of free expression, and release political prisoners.

First, the agreement Sen. Kerry refers to here was not made with the OAS and the Carter Center, but with the opposition. The OAS and Carter Center acted as facilitators for this agreement. Second, the agreement does not mention the recall referendum at all. Rather, it calls on both sides to reject violence and to support the constitution. While there has been some debate in Venezuela as to who started the violent protests, there is much evidence that members of the opposition sought out a violent confrontation with state security forces. As for respecting the right to freedom of expression, there is complete and total freedom of expression in Venezuela, more than at any point in Venezuela’s history. Finally, with regard to political prisoners, this is a term that Venezuela’s opposition uses for them, but one which internationally recognized human rights organizations have yet to adopt. As such, Senator Kerry is placing himself as a solid supporter of Venezuela’s opposition, which does not bode well for future relations between the government of Venezuela and a possible President Kerry.

Too often in the past, this Administration has sent mixed signals by supporting undemocratic processes in our own hemisphere — including in Venezuela, where they acquiesced to a failed coup attempt against President Chavez.

Actually, the Bush administration’s signals with respect to undemocratic processes has not been mixed at all: as long as the undemocratic processes favor the Bush administration’s policy interests, it will support them. It is Senator Kerry who is sending mixed signals by issuing a statement like this, one which does not give Venezuela’s referendum process a chance to play itself out, which makes unsubstantiated claims about the Chavez government, and which encourages a recall referendum even when it is not yet clearly established that the requisite number of Venezuelan citizens want one.

Having just allowed the democratically elected leader to be cast aside in Haiti, they should make a strong statement now by leading the effort to preserve the fragile democracy in Venezuela.

Allowing a “democratically elected leader to be cast aside” in Venezuela via a possibly fraudulent recall referendum process would be little different from what happened in Haiti. It would destroy what has actually become a more vigorous democracy in Venezuela than ever. More people are involved in Venezuela’s political institutions now than before, from land reform committees, to local participatory planning councils, to public accountability efforts (“contraloria social”). This week thousands of candidates are being nominated for August regional elections of governors, mayors, state legislators, and city council persons. There have been absolutely no limitations on anyone’s ability to participate.

The only reason Venezuela’s democracy is in danger is because opposition forces have never accepted President Chavez as the legitimately elected president and have tried to undermine his presidency via a coup attempt and a politically motivated shut-down of the country’s all-important oil industry – an act that would have been considered completely illegal in any country in the world (and for which no one in Venezuela has been imprisoned). It is due to these acts of the opposition that President Chavez and his supporters are so suspicious of the signatures that were recently collected for the recall referendum. The best way to ensure that Venezuelan democracy remains strong is by making sure that all sides agree that the referendum is legitimate. This is the main reason why the process has been taking so long.

By issuing this statement, Senator Kerry is clearly taking sides in Venezuela’s conflict and is supporting the opposition. As such, he is placing himself to the right of President Bush, who has so far only supported Venezuela’s opposition more or less covertly.

[1] The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela says the following about the Venezuelan government’s efforts: “Against this upsurge in activity of Colombian narcotrafficking organizations operating in Venezuela, the Government of Venezuela (GOV) has attempted to pass expansive new legislation, refine the focus of its small force of criminal investigators and public prosecutors, and worked with the USG toward the development of improved intelligence, investigative, interdiction, and judicial capabilities. GOV drug enforcement officials are dedicated, professional, and sincere in their efforts to combat narcotrafficking and drug abuse in Venezuela.” The report also states that, “USG narcotics control efforts and programs underwent significant expansion in Venezuela in 2001.” (http://embajadausa.org.ve/wwwh1695.html)

[2] “U.S. General Sites Progress in Colombia”, The Miami Herald, October 9, 2003, Page 16A