In April the White House began to experiment with a diplomatic approach to Venezuela, after experiencing a regional backlash against the economic sanctions that it imposed against the country on March 9. As I noted in previous columns, this effort included an unprecedented meeting between President Barack Obama and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela at the April Summit of the Americas, the dispatch of a high-level diplomat (Thomas Shannon) to meet with Venezuelan officials and abstention from hostile rhetoric against the government of Venezuela for perhaps the longest period in 14 years. These were positive signs and were undoubtedly related to Washington’s beginning of normalizing relations with Cuba, which culminated in the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington on July 20.
More recently, however, there are disturbing signs that the White House is not as serious about normalizing relations with Venezuela as it is with Cuba.
One of those signs has been recent statements from Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department calling for “credible and timely electoral observation” for Venezuela’s December elections to the National Assembly. Though the State Department has not explained what is meant by “credible and timely,” the statements closely coincide with a major lobbying effort on the part of the Venezuelan opposition to have the Organization of American States (OAS) send an observation mission. As I noted previously, there were signals in June from the more hard-line right in Washington foreign policy circles that this would be part of an attempt to delegitimize the elections. Now Kerry appears poised to adopt this position, and if he does, it will be correctly seen throughout the region as a very hostile move. To understand this, one has to know the role that the OAS has played in elections where Washington has promoted regime change or has decided for or against a particular candidate.
In 2000, OAS election observers initially approved the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Haiti. They then changed their position in response to U.S. pressure. The Haitian and international press used this result to delegitimize the democratically elected government of Haiti. The U.S. and its allies cut off aid to the government, and since Haiti is desperately poor, the combined economic destruction and destabilization efforts succeeded in overthrowing the government in 2004. Thousands of people were killed in a coup and its aftermath, and Haiti remains occupied by United Nations troops.
In 2011, again in Haiti, the OAS collaborated with the United States in doing something that had never been done before in the history of election monitoring: It actually overturned the results of the first round of Haiti’s presidential election. Normally, if an election is flawed, there is a recount; if that is not sufficient to determine the winner, the election can be held again. Never does an electoral monitoring authority, without a recount or even a statistical test, simply reverse the outcome. And yet this is what the OAS did, and U.S. officials threatened Haiti — still reeling from the devastation of the horrific 2010 earthquake — with a cutoff of humanitarian aid if it did not accept the OAS’ preferred candidate. The ruthless post-earthquake threat made it clear that this was also the U.S. government’s preferred candidate, and evidence from cables made public by WikiLeaks also demonstrated Washington’s hostility to the candidate rejected by the OAS. (Just last month the OAS put its stamp of approval on the first elections to be held in Haiti since 2011, despite nearly a quarter of ballots never being counted.)
Now, you might think that Washington can get away with anything in Haiti, because Haiti is poor and black, and widespread racism gives it license. And this is true, but other countries are also vulnerable. Let us not forget that Washington has also managed to greatly distort the reality of Venezuela and, after a coup in 2002, succeeded in getting most of the international press to tell the world that it was not a coup at all and that the U.S. had nothing to do with it. The latter myth persists in the major media, despite much documentary evidence to the contrary, including a State Department inspector general report, showing that the U.S. funded groups involved in the coup, including through the National Endowment for Democracy. Since 2012, the group has increased its funding in Venezuela by 80 percent.
Kerry’s position is very disturbing because he has no legitimate reason to demand such electoral monitoring. Unlike in the U.S. presidential election of 2000 or Mexico in 2006, there has never been a national election in Venezuela in which there were doubts about the result. In 2013 the United States was the only government in the world to refuse to recognize the election results in Venezuela, rejecting an audit of voting machines and demanding a full recount. Yet the audit — of 53 percent of voting machines — was so large that the statistical probability of getting the official results, if the election was stolen, was less than 1 in 25 quadrillion. (Washington eventually gave in to pressure from the rest of the region and recognized the results.)
Given this recent history and context, Kerry’s statements are not just insulting but also somewhat threatening.
The other disturbing sign from the White House is Obama’s appointment of Mark Feierstein to the position of senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. Feierstein has a long history of involvement in regime change efforts in Latin America, going back to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas during Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s administrations. He has worked against the Venezuelan government, and as a senior official at USAID, he presided over a major covert operation against the Cuban government that caused great embarrassment when it was exposed by The Associated Press. The latter effort was almost certainly illegal, since U.S. law prohibits USAID from engaging in covert operations. No one in Washington seems to know why Obama appointed a hard-liner like Feierstein to be his main adviser on Latin America, at a time when the White House is working to normalize relations with Cuba.
It has taken more than half a century for Washington to begin to once again acknowledge the sovereignty of Cuba and its people and to normalize relations. Let’s hope it does not take that long to begin this process with Venezuela.