What was a senior U.S. diplomat doing in Haiti recently meeting with a Venezuelan politician who is reportedly being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for running a giant cocaine-smuggling operation?
That’s the question raised by photos that surfaced on the Internet last week showing State Department counselor Tom Shannon posing with Venezuelan National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello in Port-au-Prince. Also in the photos: Haitian President Michel Martelly, the Venezuelan foreign minister, and a French chavista with Venezuelan citizenship who is currently posted in Washington.
The most plausible answer is that the Obamaadministration is once again working to save a police state that is about to collapse under its own weight. The trouble is that every time team Obama sits down at the poker table with thugs—think Russia, Iran and Cuba—it gets cleaned out. The region’s democracy advocates are right to be nervous.
It’s not surprising that Venezuela is ready to talk to the U.S. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level since 2010. Now the dictatorship is nearly bankrupt. Its singular dependence on oil sales to generate foreign currency reserves worked in the days of $100 a barrel oil. But falling prices and gross mismanagement of the state petroleum monopoly PdVSA have crimped income. China and Iran have their own problems and are not helping like they once did. Nevertheless, Cuba, which runs Venezuelan intelligence and state security, still draws on Venezuelan oil to survive.
Mr. Cabello also may have a personal interest in talking. On May 18 The Wall Street Journal cited a Justice Department official who said Mr. Cabello is “a main target” in what the Journal described as a probe into charges that Venezuela has become “a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.” Mr. Cabello denies any link to drug trafficking.
Between the Justice Department investigation and the Venezuelan economy one would think the U.S. would have the upper hand in any talks. But the Obama administration hasn’t demonstrated great skill in negotiating with its adversaries and Mr. Cabello has a reputation for ruthlessness.
The 52-year-old is often described as the No. 2 man in Venezuela. But he may be running the place. He is said to have more rapport with the military than Hugo Chávez’s successor, the charismatically challenged dictator Nicolás Maduro. If Mr. Cabello is the top drug boss, that would add to his power.
A State Department official told me last week that the issues discussed with Mr. Cabello in Haiti included the treatment of the Maduro government’s political prisoners, the importance of setting a date for parliamentary elections this year, and providing internationally credible observation.
“We remain very concerned about the well-being of the political prisoners. We have called publicly for their release and we believe that in the case of someone such as [political prisoner] Leopoldo López,[a former Caracas district mayor and an important member of the opposition], he is too valuable a political leader to lose,” the official said.
Since April Mr. Shannon has traveled twice to Caracas for bilateral talks with Mr. Maduro. Perhaps the conversation was moved to Haiti this month to lower the profile. But on Monday, when asked at a State Department briefing about Mr. Cabello’s role in Port-au-Prince, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said “I was not aware of a meeting with him.”
So either Mr. Cabello’s participation in the talks was supposed to be a secret, or he showed up uninvited. Certainly the photos were not in the interest of the U.S. For Mr. Cabello they lend an air of legitimacy that could counter his image as a narcotraficante. That possibility has caused some observers to speculate that Mr. Shannon walked into a trap.
A State Department spokesperson told me in an email last week that the meeting was “positive and productive.” Translation: Nothing to see here; move along. In fact there’s a lot riding on these negotiations. The end of the chavismo dictatorship would be a good thing. But a descent into chaos of African proportions would take with it the frail democracy movement.
Fair elections could produce a transition back to a democracy not unlike the internationally monitored vote that removed Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega from power in 1990. Yet it’s worth remembering that Mr. Ortega’s Sandinistas never put down their weapons nor surrendered control of the courts, making true democracy impossible.
Venezuela’s chavista regime—with Cuba working behind the scenes—is not about to let go of power. It wants the international legitimacy it has lost due to human-rights violations and drug-trafficking. Mr. Cabello also likely wants to get himself off the list of suspects in the drug probe. Any promises he makes toward pluralism must be secured by more than his word. If Mr. Obama expects to win concessions by propping up the regime, as he has done with Cuba, there’s reason to worry.
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