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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Venezuela: Issues for 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. In December 2010, Venezuela revoked its agreement for the appointment of Larry Palmer, nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela. The United States responded by revoking the diplomatic visa of Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alavrez.

Under the rule of President Chávez, first elected in 1998 and reelected 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.

Venezuelans approved a constitutional referendum in February 2009 that abolished term limits, allowing Chávez to run for reelection 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. In legislative elections held in September 2010, opposition parties won 67 out of 165 seats in the National Assembly, denying President Chávez’s ruling party a supermajority and providing the opposition with a voice in government. In December 2010, however, Venezuela’s outgoing National Assembly approved a law granting President Chávez far-reaching decree powers for 18 months that undermined the authority of the new Assembly that was inaugurated in January 2011.

As in past years, there were concerns in the 111
th 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 ( CISADA, 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. U.S. officials are examining whether Venezuela is in violation of the sanctions legislation. Several other bills and resolution were introduced in the 111th Congress with provisions regarding Venezuela and proliferation, terrorism, and human rights concerns, but none of these were acted upon. The 112th Congress may continue to pay close attention to these issues.

Date of Report: March 11, 2011
Number of Pages: 53
Order Number: R40938
Price: $29.95

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