President Obama Should Change U.S. Policy and Normalize Relations with Venezuela

From March to July of last year, the United States had what Reuters reported as its "most extensive dialogue in years" with Venezuela. President Obama even met briefly with President Maduro of Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas in April. Remarkably -- given that Venezuela has never posed any security threat to the United States -- this was the first time since Hugo Chávez took office nearly 17 years ago that a U.S. president met with a sitting Venezuelan president.

This unprecedented period of détente turned out to be little more than a head fake. As the summer ended, Washington reverted to the strategy that it has pursued for most of the past 17 years: regime change. The reason was obvious: Venezuela had elections for its National Assembly scheduled for December 6th, and the Obama administration wanted to do what it could to influence, discredit, and delegitimize these elections.

This was done primarily through an international public relations campaign arguing that the elections would not be credible without monitors from the Organization of American States -- who have long been heavily influenced by Washington -- and other efforts to discredit the government. This campaign turned out to be mostly unnecessary, from Washington's point of view: Venezuela's opposition won a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. Not surprisingly, in Venezuela's heavily safeguarded, fraud-proof voting system, which former president and electoral expert Jimmy Carter called "the best in the world," there were no problems with the vote count.

But the election doesn't resolve very much in this deeply polarized country. Like the U.S., Venezuela has a presidential system. The executive makes most of the economic decisions, so the government is mostly in the same position it was in before the elections: It will either fix the economic crisis that led to this loss, or it will lose power. Under the Venezuelan constitution, the latter could happen legally under a recall referendum, or through presidential elections in 2018.

But the Venezuelan opposition has historically gone back and forth on whether to operate within a democratic electoral system. From 1999-2003, it had a strategy of "military takeover," [PDF] as described by an opposition leader, which included a U.S.-backed military coup (2002) and oil strike (2002-03) to topple the government. After losing a recall referendum by a landslide in 2004, it boycotted congressional elections in 2005. In 2013, the opposition refused to accept its loss in the presidential election, even though there was no doubt about the results. It took to the streets with violence, again backed by Washington until international pressure convinced the U.S. to recognize the results. And in 2014 the opposition once again engaged in violent street actions aimed at deposing the government.

After winning its first electoral victory in more than 16 years, the Venezuelan opposition is divided over whether to pursue an electoral or extra-legal path to power. Unfortunately, the U.S. government's foreign policy apparatus -- which includes the White House National Security Council, the Pentagon, 17 intelligence agencies, the U.S. State Department, and congressional committees -- is also divided. This means that hardliners in Venezuela who want to overthrow the government will find vitally important support from within the U.S. "national security state."

President Obama could make a decision to have normal relations with Venezuela, and at least try to prevent the vast bureaucracy from pursuing regime change. But he has not even accepted an ambassador from Venezuela, something he has already done for Cuba (it does not need congressional approval). This clearly indicates that he has no intention of reining in the hardliners within his own government on Venezuela. The result is that they will likely proceed full steam ahead in supporting extra-legal efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, including -- as in the past -- with violence.

This article was distributed by the Tribune Content Agency on January 13, 2016, and published by The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the new book "Failed: What the 'Experts' Got Wrong About the Global Economy" (2015, Oxford University Press).