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Monday, September 13, 2010

Venezuela: Issues in the 111th Congress

Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

The United States traditionally has had close relations with Venezuela, a major supplier of foreign oil, but there has been friction in relations for almost a decade under the government of populist President Hugo Chávez. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about human rights, Venezuela's military arms purchases, its relations with Cuba and Iran, and its efforts to export its brand of populism to other Latin American countries. Declining cooperation on anti-drug and antiterrorism efforts has also been a concern. In September 2008, bilateral relations worsened when President Chávez expelled the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, and the United States responded in kind. Under the Obama Administration, Venezuela and the United States reached an agreement for the return of respective ambassadors in July 2009. While some observers were hopeful that the return of ambassadors would mark an improvement in relations, this has not been the case. The United States has continued to express concerns about the Venezuelan government's treatment of the news media and political opposition and about interference in the affairs of other countries in the region. 

Under the rule of President Chávez, first elected in 1998 and re-elected to a six-year term in December 2006, Venezuela has undergone enormous political changes, with a new constitution and unicameral legislature, and a new name for the country, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Human rights organizations have expressed concerns about the deterioration of democratic institutions and threats to freedom of expression under President Chávez. The government benefitted from the rise in world oil prices, which sparked an economic boom and allowed Chávez to increase expenditures on social programs associated with his populist agenda. These programs have helped reduce poverty levels significantly, but the Venezuelan economy has been hit hard by the global financial crisis and economic downturn. 

In February 2009, Venezuelans approved a controversial constitutional referendum that abolished term limits and allows Chávez to run for re-election in 2012. Since 2009, the government has increased efforts to suppress the political opposition, including elected municipal and state officials. In January 2010, the government shut down the cable station RCTV-Internacional, prompting domestic protests and international concern about freedom of expression. Upcoming elections for the National Assembly scheduled for September 26, 2010, will be an important test for the opposition and Chávez's ruling party. 

As in past years, there have been concerns in the 111th Congress regarding the state of Venezuela's democracy and human rights situation and its deepening relations with Iran. On July 1, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Disinvestment Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-195), which includes a provision making gasoline sales to Iran subject to U.S. sanctions. (In 2009, Venezuela had promised to supply some gasoline to Iran in the case of U.S. sanctions.) In June 2010, the Senate Committee on Armed Services reported S. 3454, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2011, with a provision requiring a report on Venezuela related to terrorism issues. Among other initiatives, H.R. 375 and H.R. 2475 would place restrictions on nuclear cooperation with countries assisting the nuclear programs of Venezuela; H.Res. 174 and H.Con.Res. 124 would express concern about anti-Semitism in Venezuela; H.Res. 872 would call for the designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism; and S.Res. 428 would express concerns about violations of civil liberties.

Date of Report: September 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 49
Order Number: R40938
Price: $29.95

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