Venezuela: Futile “Dialogue” and Correcting Roberta Jacobson on the Need for Sanctions


On May 8, while Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela was arresting 240 student protestors.

In fact, since the beginning of the dialogue, the government has arrested more than 500 protestors. Protests in Venezuela have been going on for the last four months due to shortages of basic goods, a spectacularly high crime rate, a 57 percent inflation rate (officially), and an increasingly oppressive government.

Since the protests began in February, both chambers of Congress have sponsored bi-partisan legislation to promote human rights in Venezuela and to sanction specific individuals in the Venezuelan government responsible for repression and violations of human rights in Venezuela, as well as the torture and murder of at least 41 protestors. The irony here is that while members of the Foreign Affairs Committees in both houses of the United States Congress see a need for sanctions, Jacobson continues to advocate for a dialogue between the two sides (the government and the opposition).

This puts the Obama Administration at odds with Democrats in both the House and the Senate who believe the time has come to pressure the Venezuelan government. Jacobson’s main argument is that imposition of sanctions would undermine the current dialogue “while it still offers a chance of progress.”

Does Jacobson presume that the Venezuelan government will engage in dialogue with the opposition when so many of them are now incarcerated?

In addition to supporting dialogue over sanctions, Jacobson stated that members of the opposition who are part of this dialogue share her thinking (without saying who). So, she concluded that this is not the right time to apply sanctions. She did acknowledge that not every member of the opposition shares her views.

Jacobson seemed confused and defensive, however, when Senator Marco Rubio asked for specific names of those in the opposition who asked her to refrain from sanctions on perpetrators of human rights violations. The answer to why the chief US diplomat on Latin-American affairs experienced such feelings of embarrassment came just hours after the hearings.

Indeed, the executive secretary of the opposition party called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), Ramon Guillermo Aveledo issued a statement claiming that while MUD opposes general embargoes against the people of Venezuela, it does not rule out that sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations (as in the pending proposals).

This shows that the opposition to sanctions comes from the Obama administration and the State Department, not from the Venezuelan opposition.

Is the position of the administration logical? Does Jacobson really believe there is any incentive for the Venezuelan government to conduct an honest dialogue that would ultimately restore democracy to Venezuela? Are Jacobson and the State Department bureaucracy aware of the kind of regime the Bolivarian regime is? How exactly can they justify their current position against sanctions?

Most recently, César Vidal, a Spanish historian who resides in Miami, spoke about the conditions of possibility for dialogue in a symposium organized by the Miami-based Forum for the Promotion of Continental Democracy (FPDC). Vidal pointed out that dialogue cannot take place when it is dealing with (1) a totalitarian regime, (2) an entity or group that has systematically violated the constitution and legality of the state, and (3) a terrorist group.

Although, some may argue whether the Venezuelan regime is totalitarian or not, its aspirations are definitely totalitarian. From the outset, the regime declared itself revolutionary and did everything possible to perpetuate itself in power via repression and other means of intimidation, while denying the legitimacy of any other truth except its own ideology.

True dialogue, a key element in democratic societies, has not existed in Venezuela. Elections were used as an excuse to legitimize a ruthless majority rule over a minority with limited rights. The majority of course is not really a majority, but it is embedded in the power of a government that keeps growing, at the expense of civil and political liberties. Indeed, the government has displayed totalitarian behavior, and this is the general direction in which it is currently going.

In addition, César Vidal pointed out that it is impossible to ask a totalitarian regime (or in this case a regime that tends towards totalitarianism) to change its ways. Furthermore, an agreement with totalitarian regimes that does not include its ultimate capitulation (or does not guarantee its eventual transformation) only strengthens totalitarian power.

The Chávez-Maduro regime, precisely because of its totalitarian aspirations, has also broken the rule of law and systematically violated the country’s constitution to institutionalize an oppressive regime. The regime is the aggressor that denies the opposition and civil society a voice that it deserves. The opposition and civil society are the victims, not moral equals. As negotiations unfold, the Maduro regime continues to arrest people by the hundreds, torture, and shoot protestors and dissidents. Likewise, it has stubbornly refused to release any of the prisoners it has unjustly jailed in a clear sign that it intends to keep the upper hand.

Simply supporting a plain dialogue assumes, as Vidal also pointed out, that the non-totalitarian side also shares some responsibility and provides legitimacy to the aggressive side by providing a false perception that two moral equals are negotiating and somehow both are equally responsible for the deterioration of the situation.

Thus, there will not be any compromise offered by the Venezuelan government if the opposition does not have some leverage. Iran is a case in point. Dialogue with Iran would not have been conceivable without the sanctions that preceded it

Sanctions, as they are proposed in this bill, should be a first step, a sort of a warning. The US government and, if possible, other countries should create a situation where the threat of more punitive action deters the Venezuelan regime. The final purpose should be to transform the nature of the regime. The goal should be at least to create a situation where the government allows more space and power to the opposition without interference and also restores the legality and constitutionality that existed prior to the rise of Hugo Chávez to power.

This means to cease having totalitarian aspirations and to open the system to a true democracy without repression; without paramilitary; without political prisoners; without political exiles; without subjugation of the judiciary; without arbitrary expropriation of private property; without restricting the freedom of the press and other individual liberties; and with full respect for and inclusion of the opposition.

In other words, the regime cannot do less than give up its own tyrannical essence.

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