Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 222: June 23, 2015

Venezuela: U.S. Policy Zigs and Zags
Brazil: A Weakened Rousseff Visits U.S. 

Venezuela 

 

The Venezuelan government has set December 6 as the date for long-anticipated national assembly elections, with the country as polarized as any time under the late president Hugo Chávez. … In recent weeks, however, political leaders from Latin America and other regions have stepped up public campaigns calling on the Maduro government to respect human rights and democratic norms. … Last Thursday, a delegation of Brazilian senators, headed by former presidential candidate Aécio Neves, travelled to Venezuela to visit Leopoldo López and other jailed opposition leaders. … Their bus from the airport, however, was intercepted and attacked by a mob of government supporters. … Unable to visit the prisoners, and with little or no protection from the Maduro government, the delegation was forced to return to the airport and leave the country. … In another recent visit, the former president of Spain, Felipe González, also was blocked from meeting with the jailed opposition and was publicly denounced by the government, who declared him persona non grata. … Former presidents of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Bolivia also have tried to visit the prisoners with no success. … To date, 23 ex-presidents have signed a letter demanding their immediate release. … In stark contrast, the Obama administration appears to be pursuing a policy of accommodation with the Venezuelan government. … On June 13, U.S. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon met with Diosdado Cabello, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly who, according to published reports, is the principal target of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into narcotics trafficking. … As recently as last March, the administration appeared to be moving in a different direction, with sanctions being levied against a handful of mid-level security officials for human rights violations. …  However, after the Maduro government threatened to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the matter, and steal the spotlight from President Obama’s Cuba rapprochement, Secretary of State John Kerry dispatched Shannon to Caracas for private consultations. … Although no U.S. official acknowledged making any concessions to Maduro, no further human rights sanctions have been imposed since Shannon’s intervention.

    • The accommodationist policy of the Obama administration toward the Maduro government, even as more regional actors have become more vocal and active, has sown a great deal of confusion and concern among many in the Venezuelan opposition movement.  Many legitimately wonder whether the administration has abandoned them to their fate under chavismo in the interest of managing a “soft-landing” for the for the Maduro government as a result of the economic and social debacle that is Venezuela today. At the very least, the intimate involvement of a senior U.S. diplomat in the Venezuela controversy ought to mean, once and for all, that Washington would take an effective stand for the rule of law.  If not, U.S. policymakers will share some responsibility for that country’s slide into the abyss.  Mass demonstrations, fraudulent elections, systematic repression, the jailing of prominent members of the opposition, economic chaos, and a symbiosis of the regime with criminal and terrorist organizations are the troubling facts of life in Venezuela today.  These conditions, which have been deteriorating for more than a decade, have been left to fester.  The United States’ hard line against state-sponsored drug trafficking goes back decades, and it is profoundly risky to shelve such a policy for attempted short-term political gains.  Moreover, normalizing diplomatic relations with Caracas at this juncture risks benefiting Maduro’s ability to hold onto power, to the detriment of U.S. regional interests. However, negotiating the surrender of Cabello and his co-conspirators would be a very worthy undertaking.  Now that the Maduro government has set a date of December 6 for parliamentary elections, the emphasis should be placed on securing an impartial electoral monitoring mission. The Venezuelan regime has traditionally rejected independent observers, contributing to the perception among opposition voters that campaigns are not free and the counting of votes is not fair.  The situation in Venezuela continues to be tense and dangerous for the region. U.S. policymakers and democratic governments in the region cannot overlook the fact that allowing Venezuela to careen forward into an uncertain future only portends difficulties for all concerned.

Brazil 

 

On June 30, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will make her first visit to the U.S. since relations between the two countries were strained by the allegation that the Brazilian leader had been the target of U.S. electronic surveillance. … Her visit comes amidst a huge controversy in Brazil over a massive $17 billion graft scheme that has implicated members of the ruling Workers’ Party along and some of Brazil’s most prominent corporations. … Brazilian police on Friday arrested the CEOs of Brazil’s largest construction firms Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez for their alleged involvement in the scheme. … Previous arrests related to the corruption scandal include numerous executives from Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party treasurer, João Vaccari Neto. … On Monday, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they are seeking U.S. assistance in building a case against those involved in the country’s corruption scheme after being “inspired by the FIFA case.” … The revelations of the graft scandal have severely damaged the Brazilian economy, which analysts note already was suffering due to Rousseff’s attempts to micromanage the economy during her first term. … The country’s economic woes as well as the corruption scandal have caused Rousseff’s political support to plummetsince winning reelection in October by the tightest margin in Brazilian history. … A Datafolha poll released Sunday showed that the Rousseff administration has reached a record-low approval rating of 10 percent. … Rousseff’s unpopularity has relegated her to playing a far less active role in her own government and has required her to play defense against a hostile congress. … Despite these factors, some are optimistic about the fruits of Rousseff’s visit. … Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “We look to June 30th as a way to relaunch [U.S.-Brazil relations].” … Jacobson also stated that she expects progress in the areas of health, education exchanges, defense cooperation, and climate change.

  • Rousseff’s low approval rating indicates that those dissatisfied with her presidency now includes poor and working-class Brazilians angered by the corruption scandal that saw the theft of $17 billion dollars. This indignationapparently trumps the fact that Rousseff’s party has led the charge for generous government spending on public welfare programs. Rousseff’s political troubles at home have likely made her more amendable to cooperation with the United States; however, they also severely hinder her ability to follow through on any meaningful bilateral commitments. The downside of this visit is that both Presidents Obama and Rousseff might be satisfied with merely symbolic gestures that score political points at home rather than meaningful commitments that address pressing regional issues and truly mark a new era in U.S.-Brazil relations. Repairing U.S.-Brazil relations is long overdue, and, if done properly, could mark the return of U.S. engagement in the region and politically benefit both leaders.  Despite Brazil’s economic woes, it remains a regional power that could play a more constructive role in countries where democratic institutions are under severe pressure, such as Venezuela. Commitments on defense cooperation, Internet governance, and economic opening will be more difficult to achieve but also should be addressed in order to pave the way to increased trade and investment between the two countries and a more stable region. This visit obviously will not address all of the issues that require U.S. and Brazilian cooperation, but it could usher in more substantive cooperation between the two countries through the balance of President Obama’s term.

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