Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Current Developments In Venezuela

Mr. President, we are all painfully aware of the many resource rich countries whose leaders care far more about maintaining their grip on power and enriching themselves than addressing the needs of their people.  The departed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych was a good example, and in this hemisphere, Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez, and his successor President Nicolas Maduro, stand out.

President Chavez, a former army officer who was swept into power in a wave of popular discontent after decades of corrupt, elitist governments, mastered the art of deception.  He was a cult personality and virulently anti-United States, who dished out favors to poor communities as he ruined the country’s economy, destroyed any semblance of an independent judiciary, changed the constitution so he could hold onto power indefinitely, and used the police to intimidate the press. 

In the year since Chavez’ death, President Maduro has tried to fill his shoes.  He has adopted Chavez’ divisive, anti-U.S. rhetoric, but he lacks Chavez’ charisma, and the prognosis for positive change in Venezuela is increasingly bleak.   

Early last month, a few student demonstrations quickly spiraled into the largest public protests against President Maduro since he came to power.  Having been elected by a razor-thin margin, the smallest in nearly half a century, many Venezuelans hoped the stultifying reality of widespread unemployment and economic stagnation would inspire reforms.  Regrettably, President Maduro did not heed the people’s message.

Instead, inflation has skyrocketed in the oil-rich country and food shortages have plagued local markets.  Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2013-2014 ranks Venezuela number three on its list of economies damaged by high crime rates and violence, contributing to the resolve of the thousands of Venezuelans who took to the streets in protest.  From San Cristobal, to Maracaibo, to the capital city of Caracas, the demonstrations have attracted students, merchants, and middle-class professionals in a challenge to government repression and mismanagement.

For several weeks, images of the protests trickled out of Venezuela through various social media platforms, offering a limited, unfiltered perspective amidst the state-run media’s censorship of impartial coverage.  Because of the fog caused by this lack of objective information, it took nearly two weeks for many major U.S. news sources to arrive in country to begin coverage. 

The distorted, self-serving portrayal of the protestors as treasonous fascists by the Maduro administration and the state-run media has been compounded by the deaths of some 18 people and the arbitrary arrests of hundreds, and risks inciting a further crackdown against the opposition.  Additionally, there have been reports that foreign journalists have been detained while trying to cover the protests, with up to 20 having been physically assaulted, according to a Colombian news source that has since been banned from Venezuela for covering the protests.

The U.S. State Department’s recently released Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 describes the Maduro government’s efforts to impede freedom of expression.  The increasingly heavy-handed and violent actions over the last few weeks have exacerbated the situation.

As one of Venezuela’s most important trading partners, and as a nation whose people take note of the well-being and basic rights of other peoples in our hemisphere and beyond, the United States has an interest in ensuring that human rights are not violated with impunity.  I hope President Maduro will not continue to make the mistake of other messianic, autocratic leaders who demonize their opponents.  In Venezuela they represent roughly half of the population.   He would do far better to work with all Venezuelans to reduce tensions and find real solutions to the country’s problems.  The people of his country deserve nothing less.   


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