Decent Venezuelans must be appalled by news that a senior US diplomat met Saturday with Diosdado Cabello, a regime hard-liner who published reports say is a principal target of an ongoing US Justice Department drug smuggling investigation. Coming just a week after Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolás Maduro threatened “massacre and death” if his revolution falls to “imperialism,” many observers wondered why State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon would meet with any regime leader, least of all one suspected of being a cocaine kingpin. Rather than continuing to coddle Maduro and his cohorts, one hopes that Shannon was putting Cabello on notice that his criminality has crossed a red line.
At the very least, the intimate involvement of the most senior US career diplomat in the Venezuela controversy ought to mean, once and for all, that Washington will take an effective stand for the rule of law. If not, US policymakers will share some responsibility for that country’s slide into the abyss.
It is not clear where this US diplomatic intervention is headed. In March, it appeared that US officials were preparing to take a more principled stand on Venezuela when they sanctioned a handful of midlevel security officials for human rights violations. However, in response to a furious reaction by the regime, Secretary of State John Kerry dispatched Shannon to Caracas for private consultations. Although no US official acknowledged making any concessions to Maduro, it is interesting to note that, despite hunger strikes by jailed opposition leaders, no further human rights sanctions have been imposed since Shannon’s intervention.
According to sources in Venezuela, during a follow-up meeting in May, Shannon disclosed to Maduro that American journalists were preparing to publish an article detailing an ongoing US federal probe into drug corruption with his regime, in which Cabello allegedly plays a central role. Maduro’s reaction to Shannon’s blunt appraisal was one of desperation because the president knows that he cannot challenge Cabello — who controls an important military faction — even if he wants to.
It appears that Maduro conceived of Shannon’s encounter with Cabello, which put the US diplomat on the spot to deliver the sobering news directly to the alleged kingpin. Although there is no public or private readout of that meeting, which took place on the neutral territory of Haiti, Shannon must have informed Cabello that the investigations are serious, substantial, and under the control of prosecutors who enjoy absolute independence.
Some independent journalists and democratic opposition figures expressed dismay during the weekend at news of the Shannon-Cabello meeting. Some wondered whether the United States was joining the rest of the hemisphere in abandoning them to the authoritarian regime — notwithstanding revelations of criminality.
An example of the region’s indifference was just witnessed in Brazil. Cabello’s courtesy call with President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor came just days after Maduro’s menacing declarations about “massacres and death.” Faced with scandals plaguing their own Workers’ Party, one would think the Brazilian leaders would steer clear of alleged criminal Cabello, the man who personally chauffeured opposition leader Leopoldo López to prison 15 months ago. But it appears that Caracas is calling in all the favors that billions of petrodollars can buy.
If this were not enough reason for concern, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), recently recognized Venezuela’s government for “meeting the UN millennium goal of halving malnutrition.” The FAO used the occasion to announce that it was naming its antihunger campaign in honor of the late Hugo Chavez. These honors were accorded despite of the chronic shortages of food and medicine that force Venezuelans to wait in half-mile lines to purchase the staples they need to survive. Of course, FAO’s staff are fully aware of this misery, but apparently that organization is as corrupted as a human rights council that is the cathedra of the world’s worst abusers.
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 by neighboring governments, many of which boast of their reputations as guarantors of human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression.
Many in the region believe naively that the problems of each country will not affect the stability of others or that the vaunted doctrine of “nonintervention” embraced by most foreign ministries safeguards their “sovereignty.” Tragically for Venezuela and for her neighbors, both of these statements are delusions.
In the last year, as the situation in Venezuela has become more volatile and violent, a number of former Latin American presidents have sought to defend the human rights of political prisoners and to denounce Maduro’s autocratic behavior. The regime rejects this activism as “interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs,” even though Maduro behaves like a sock puppet of Havana and has permitted the Cuban dictatorship to micromanage his nation’s affairs, big and small.
Weak democratic institutions, corruption, impunity, insecurity, inequality, and human rights abuses plague many nations of the region. For most governments in the Americas, these are seen as problems to be solved. In Venezuela, Cuba, and a number of other leftist states, these conditions are instruments of state control. Regional leaders must come to understand that ignoring Venezuela’s spiraling crisis is inviting these problems to spread. Certainly, when governments turn a blind eye to transnational organized criminalswithin the Venezuelan state, they are inviting these gangsters to have their way in the hemisphere.
The United States has always taken a hard line against state-sponsored drug trafficking, and it is difficult to imagine that an ambitious career diplomat like Shannon would be party to scuttling that policy. Also, normalizing diplomatic relations with Caracas to help Maduro hold on to power is contrary to US values and security. However, negotiating the surrender of Cabello and his coconspirators would be a very worthy undertaking, indeed.
Maduro and Cabello may hold out hope that US police, prosecutors, and judges are as politically pliable as those in Venezuela these days. Perhaps Shannon gave both men a lesson in the separation of powers, informing them that trying to discourage a federal investigation for political reasons is not only hopeless but also is quite illegal. Ambassador Shannon’s best advice to Maduro and Cabello and their many coconspirators is to bring a lawyer and a toothbrush to their meeting with US prosecutors.
Sources in Venezuela confirm that during his meetings with government and opposition leaders this spring in Caracas, Shannon also advocated a path to parliamentary elections that might help defuse the crisis by reining in the regime. US officials have made clear that they would vigorously advocate “credible elections” with an independent “monitoring mission.”
For years, the Venezuelan regime has rejected independent election observers, contributing to the perception among opposition voters that campaigns are not free and the counting of votes is not fair. With Maduro’s approval rating plummeting, electoral authorities — who are widely seen as partisans of the regime — have yet to announce the date of elections that are supposed to be held this year.
What is happening in Venezuela is very real and very dangerous. It is tragic that the leaders of neighboring Latin American and the Caribbean nations have chosen to ignore this turmoil. US policymakers should finally recognize that they do not have that option.
The author was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of President George W. Bush (2001–05) and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents US and foreign clients.