Mar 17 2015
Washington, D.C. – In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, pressed the Obama Administration to broaden sanctions on human rights violators in Venezuela and highlighted the role the Cuban regime plays in the repression of the Venezuelan people.
Excerpts from the hearing are below:
Senator Rubio: “This hearing of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues will come to order. This hearing is titled ‘Deepening Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela: Implications for US interests and Western Hemisphere.’ I’d like to begin by welcoming Mr. Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba, and Mr. John E. Smith, the Acting Director of Office of Foreign Assets Control. We had invited Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson to participate, but we were informed that she is in Havana today and she would not be available., so we appreciate you being here today, Mr. Lee.
“With vast oil reserves, Venezuela is one of the richest countries in Latin America. The Venezuelan people are intelligent, well-educated and hardworking people. The evidence of this can be found in my home state, in Miami, and Doral and Weston, Florida where a vibrant Venezuelan community has helped build quality and vibrant communities.
“And Venezuela is also the cradle of democracy in South America. And that is why it is so tragic that Venezuela has turned into a social, political, and economic disaster. The reason for this is simple, because today that nation is increasingly in the iron grip of corrupt and incompetent leaders. A rich country, suffering from a massive and growing shortage of food, medicine, and basic goods. To the point where Maduro has had to order supermarkets to install fingerprint scanners to enforce food rations.
“Venezuela has an inflation rate of over 60%, among the highest in the world. Price controls in Venezuela have led to massive shortages of medicine and medical equipment, forced hospitals to suspend cancer treatments and all but emergency surgical procedures. Shortages of spare parts have grounded much of the bus and truck fleet. And many airlines have stopped flying to Venezuela altogether.
“The government, by the way, has also defaulted on several large debts. Back when they were facing elections in 2012 and 2013, they authorized more imports than it could afford. When the bills came due, they stopped paying them, building up tens of billions of dollars’ worth of debt. The result is that Venezuelan bonds are treated as among the riskiest in the world, demanding premiums that are twice those of Bolivia, four times those of Nigeria and 13 times those of Mexico or Chile.
“It is the incompetence of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez that has left Venezuela in the position it finds itself in. But instead of seeking out reforms to improve conditions, the response of the Maduro regime has been to crack down on dissent, erode democracy and violently violate the human rights of their own people.
“Here’s just a brief recap of the steps Maduro and his cronies have taken to strengthen their grip on power:
- In April of 2013, the main opposition TV network Globovision was forced to sell to a pro-government owner.
- In July of 2013, pro-government businessmen bought Cadena Capriles, the owner of the largest daily in Venezuela Ultimas Noticias.
- In August of 2013, the most corrupt man in Venezuela, and that is one heck of a title, Mr. Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly President, used a simple majority vote instead of the required 2/3 vote to suspend an opposition deputy from office, paving the way for a series of votes to grant Maduro decree powers.
- In September of 2013, Maduro closes Voz de Orinioco a radio station. He closed it for “calling to rebellion.”
- In October of 2013, Maduro restricts bulk paper imports to opposition newspapers, making it harder for them to go to print.
- In February of 2014, security officials working with armed pro-government thugs confront, beat and even kill anti-Maduro protesters.
- That same month, the National Telecommunications Commission prohibits local TV and radio from covering anti-government protests.
- In May of 2014, the Maduro government begins to routinely block websites that are critical of the regime.
- In July of 2014, a Spanish investor group close to Maduro buys El Universal, one of the nation’s flagship daily newspapers, and immediately the content of that newspaper changes to one supportive of Maduro.
- In August of 2014, the government begins proceedings against Radio Caracas and suspends an opposition radio show from broadcasting
“This is just a small sampling of the anti-democratic moves and the violent moves taken by this regime just in the last year and a half. Faced with these long string of human rights violations and the fact that many of these violators and the people who enable them have strong economic links to the United States and in particular South Florida, late last year Congress passed and the President signed a law allowing the United States to deny visas and freeze the assets of human rights violators in Venezuela.
“Last week, the President applied these sanctions against several human rights violators. These sanctions are not against the government of Venezuela. These sanctions are not against the people of Venezuela nor do they aim to deny the people of Venezuela anything. These sanctions that the President has imposed deny known human rights violators the chance to use the money they have stolen from the people of Venezuela to enjoy luxuries here in the United States.
“These are sanctions that deny human rights violators the chance to travel freely to the United States. Faced with an economic catastrophe and dwindling public support, Nicolás Maduro has tried to use these sanctions as a way to deflect from these problems and rally people around anti-Americanism and nationalism. He has gone as far as to absurdly claim the United States is preparing an invasion of Venezuela. And he has tried to place the opposition in a position of either supporting him or be labeled as traitors.
“Let me be very clear;
- The future of Venezuela belongs to the people of Venezuela to decide via free and fair elections.
- The United States has no interest and no plan of imposing or encouraging in what direction a free people of Venezuela freely choose.
- The purpose of these sanctions is only this: to deny corrupt officials and human rights violators the opportunity to buy homes, make investments and vacation in the United States with the money they have stolen from the people of Venezuela.
“Nevertheless, we can expect to see more of these theatrics from Nicolás Maduro in the days and weeks to come. In fact, we have just received word that he is shopping around an open letter to the American people to be published any day now in some major American media outlet or various media outlets, encouraging the American people to stand up to their elected officials and ask them to stop picking on him. By the way, in the same letter, he accuses the United States of being involved in a 2002 coup plot in Venezuela, another absurd claim.
“This past weekend he asked for, and was given absolute power once again by the National Assembly. You can expect to see more of this because the declining economy and falling oil prices has cut into his ability to buy support.
“Here’s are some of the things you can expect to see:
- Unable to find credible evidence of coup plots between the opposition and U.S. diplomats, I predict you will soon see the Maduro government produce fabricated evidence of coup plotting.
- You will see the clandestine assassination of opposition figures.
- And you may even see Maduro and his cronies try and move up the this year’s elections to capitalize on the nationalism before the popularity of his government fades even more.
“But no amount of repression or theatrics will solve or cover up the disaster he has brought upon the people of Venezuela;
- Food seized from private stores rot in warehouses because of their incompetence.
- Maduro and his cronies continue to manipulate currency to make money for themselves.
- Maduro and his cronies will continue to force those doing business with the government to use companies they control as subcontractors.
- And at some point this year, we may even see the gasoline subsidy long provided by the government either altered or removed altogether.
“We will also continue to see human rights violations. The Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez has authorized the use of force against peaceful demonstrators, which has led to the murder of a 14-year-old boy. We will see more arrests like the recent one of the elected Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who was arrested last month. And sadly, we will see more deaths such as when one opposition leader, Rodolfo Gonzalez, took his own life when faced with the Maduro decision to move the dissident leader to a cell block of common criminals.
“It is also worth noting a few others aspects of the Maduro regime:
- First, the Cuban dictatorship has penetrated every aspect of the Venezuelan government. We will get into that today.
- Second, Maduro has opened the door to closer military relations with Iran, Russia and China. In fact, the Venezuelan military is currently conducting exercises with visiting Russian troops and equipment.
- Third, the Maduro regime continues to harbor vast elements of the FARC within Venezuelan territory, offering this terrorist group sanctuary and protection.
- And fourth, along with Cuba, Maduro continues to aid populist anti-American elements throughout Central and South America.
“The people of Venezuela deserve better than this. And while the direction of their future belongs to them, we will be a strong voice in firm support of their aspirations for a better country and a better life. And we will not allow those who are violating their rights and denying them this better future the chance to come to Doral or Weston, or to Miami or CocoPlum, and enjoy life with the money they have stolen from their own people.”
Rubio: “The question is not whether the Venezuelans are ultimately responsible. Ultimately, they’re the ones that asked for the assistance and are putting it into place. The question is whether the Cubans are assisting the Venezuelan government and putting gin place the mechanisms that the Venezuelan government is using to repress the people of Venezuela. You cannot answer that question today?”
Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America and Cuba: “I think the Venezuelan government charts its own course, takes advice from the Cubans on certain things, but fundamentally it’s the Venezuelan government that charts its own course – for good, for ill, whether effectively or feckless.”
Rubio: “Well, Mr. Lee, I think what’s obvious here is that you can’t say what everyone knows. And that is that the Cuban government is helping the Venezuelan government do this because on the one hand, while we’re sanctioning Venezuelan government officials, we are lifting sanctions on Cuban officials that have made this possible.
“And so, at the end of the day, it truly is amazing to me that in this hearing the individual responsible for this portfolio, on behalf of the U.S. government, refuses to state on the record that the Cuban government is intricately involved in helping the Venezuelan government to repress its own people. This is a claim we’ve been willing to make about multiple countries around the world. This is a claim we’ve made about the Cubans in the past. This is a claim that we’ve made about the Cubans and that the State Department has acknowledged – up until December of last year when suddenly they stopped talking about it.
“I just find it unbelievable that we cannot get somebody from the Department of State who is responsible for this portfolio to openly acknowledge that the Cuban government is providing extraordinary assistance to the Venezuelan government in suppressing the people of Venezuela. I hope that you’ll reconsider. I hope that the State Department will reconsider acknowledging that because it undermines our credibility as a nation to turn a blind eye to the role that the Cuban government is playing in the suppression of the Venezuelan people.
“The people of Venezuela are fully aware of it. There isn’t anyone that gets off a plane from Venezuela that doesn’t tell you there are Cubans everywhere. And there are Cubans everywhere on the island involving governmental functions. Multiple people from Venezuela will tell you that when you go get a passport or any document, it is oftentimes a Cuban behind the counter that is coordinating it all.
“And to somehow think they’re there as a benign forces, for purposes of providing moral support, is quite frankly absurd. And so I hope that you’’ reconsider your answer in the days to come because it is clear to anyone who knows anything about this – and you know a lot about this – that the Cubans are helping the Venezuelans carry out these operations that they’re taking against their own people.”