Venezuela Stirs Heated Debate in U.S. Congress


Richard Moore

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Venezuela Stirs Heated Debate in U.S. Congress
Monday, Jun 26, 2006
By: Jody Nesbitt -

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives¹ International Relations Committee 
convened for a hearing entitled ŒDemocracy in Latin America, Successes, 
Challenges and the Future.¹ Despite the encompassing title, matters quickly 
boiled down to Venezuela¹s President Hugo Chavez. Chairman Henry Hyde 
(Republican-Illinois) and ranking Democrat Tom Lantos opened the session with 
harsh remarks regarding the Venezuelan President. Similar slander was 
forthcoming from expert panelists and the conservative majority. But in defiance
of Committee leadership, a small group of Democrats ardently challenged the 
anti-Chavez status quo.

Representative Lantos¹ opening remarks attacking President Chavez were some of 
the most venomous.

³Democracy¹s foundations have been systematically undermined by a demagogic 
leader [Chavez], bent on opposing democratic values and interests. To the 
discerning observer, the facade of democracy Chavez has erected cannot hide the 
destruction he has brought on democratic principles and fundamental freedoms.²

The California democrat went on to accuse President Chavez of everything from 
supporting terrorism and the drug trade, to oppressing the opposition and 
intervening in neighboring nations. Rep. Lantos cited last year¹s legislative 
elections as proof of Chavez¹s undemocratic nature. ³Candidates subservient to 
Chavez won every seat just like the old Soviet elections² he declared. Rep. 
Lantos indicated that voter lists were used to deny opposition supporters 
employment, even food and medical attention. In addition, he accused Chavez of 
financing candidates in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

³Chavez has created a one party state with his authoritarian regime 
consolidated. Chavez turned his attention and his country¹s considerable oil 
wealth to increasing his stature at the expense of his Latin American neighbors 
and our own [U.S.] national interests.²

His tirade concluded:

³To insure the recently elected and soon to be elected Presidents of Latin 
America are not pressured into accepting the oil slick promises of dictators 
with dollars, we must reengage with the region.²

Representative Barbara Lee of California followed with a respite from the 

³It¹s obvious there are points of disagreement regarding the U.S. interpretation
of democracy and national sovereignty. History has shown positive engagement is 
far more successful than isolation, and American intervention in the affairs of 
many sovereign nations has only hastened the deterioration of democracy. We 
cannot make the cry of Œundemocratic¹ in strategic locations, after looking the 
other way in others.²

Representative Gregory Meeks of New York followed with the assembly¹s most 
impassioned remarks.

³We cannot talk about Latin America without talking about the twin issues of 
democracy and poverty. And too often poverty is democracy¹s parasite. If we are 
truly going to do something as the U.S. government, as opposed to taking sides, 
or pointing fingers and suggesting this leader is more democratic than that 
leader, we need to look at what we can do to eradicate poverty in Latin America.
We have not done that yet.

He continued:

³You have a whole host of individuals, particularly Afro-Latinos throughout 
Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela, who have always been at the bottom no 
matter who the leader has been. They understand the key to a better tomorrow is 
to make sure there is not a trickle down, but a trickle up²

The subsequent presenters included Paula Dobriansky‹Under Secretary of State for
Democracy and Global Affairs‹and Adolfo Franco‹Assistant Administrator for U.S. 
AID‹who returned to the anti-Chavez theme. ³What we have witnessed in Venezuela 
is an elected official who is pursuing anti-democratic measures.² Dobriansky 
proclaimed. Interestingly, when questioned on what was being done to counter the
alleged ³millions and millions² of Venezuelans dollars influencing elections in 
Nicaragua, the Under Secretary revealed, ³thirteen million dollars have been 
spent on poll watchers and providing assistance to political parties, insuring 
there will be a level playing field.² Mr. Franco followed by denouncing 
Venezuelan influence in the region, while defending the intervention efforts of 
the Bush administration.

This provoked Rep. Meeks to respond:

³I¹m thinking this is just a hearing to beat up on Venezuela. Why is there 
populism? Because the people on the bottom at least want someone to talk about 
them. Look at the rampant racial discrimination in these countries, yet we do 
nothing about it.  But we have to fight in trade agreements to get trade 
capacity money to help people build, so they can have a better tomorrow. We 
fight and resist and give them as little as we can.²

³I¹ve been to places in Colombia with no roads, no water, or sewage, what does 
democracy mean to them? And they have polls to show they would take a dictator 
if it made a difference in their lives. We can¹t just talk the talk, that there 
needs to be elections. That elections are the end all. Truly, there were 
elections in Venezuela. I witnessed many of them. I wish people in my district 
would come out the way they come out in Venezuela. On both sides. You were there
Mr. Franco!²

³There was a coup attempt in Venezuela, the most undemocratic process there is. 
We didn¹t say democracy must prevail. What we said was we will accept this new 
government. And then we talk about democracy, and wonder why people laugh at us 
and don¹t take us serious.²

Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California retorted:

³In Venezuela they have had ample money and ample corruption with their 
democratic leaders and yes, Mr. Chavez will bring nothing but misery to his 
people. He will not bring higher standards of living. When you eliminate the 
balance of power as Mr. Chavez is doing in Venezuela today, it will make matters
worse not better.²

Representative Jerry Weller of Illinois joined in:

³There is an estimated 3-17 billion dollars in Venezuelan oil money sloshing 
around Latin America, corrupting government officials, undermining democratic 
governments through the funding of street movements. We have even seen direct 
threats against the people of a country, as in the Peruvian elections if they 
elected someone other than Chavez¹s choice.²

Representative Weller proceeded to show photos of earth moving trucks and 
Nicaraguan presidential candidate Daniel Ortega exiting a Helicopter. Rep. 
Weller asserted President Chavez has sent tons of fertilizer to Nicaragua in 
order to buy influence, while also supplying the Ortega campaign with 

Representative Delahunt of Massachusetts snapped:

³You¹re showing pictures of fertilizer; we have overthrown governments there! We
have a historical legacy we have to deal with, and we wonder why they don¹t 
trust us. We had to apologize to Guatemala in 1998 because we were implicated in
a genocide there, and you¹re worried about fertilizer. We should be sitting down
with every nation that has a democratic leader in this hemisphere and laying out
some new rules about respect for sovereignty and non-interference.²

The hearing concluded as it began, with Venezuela as the topic of discussion. 
And despite Committee leader¹s best attempts to assemble an anti­Chavez forum, 
Representatives Meeks, Delahunt, and Lee brought a degree of balance to the 
congressional floor. Although clearly in the minority, the liberal democrats 
were able to emphasize the importance of poverty eradication, provide keen 
perspective on hemispheric intervention, and to expose inconsistencies in U.S. 
support for Latin American democracy.  No legislative measures were taken and 
glaring problems in the rest of the hemisphere were largely ignored, but 
Venezuela continues to drive the important debate on democracy in the U.S. 

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