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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

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 and tensions in relations under the government of populist President Hugo Chávez. Over the years, 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 antidrug and anti-terrorism efforts has been a major concern. The United States has imposed sanctions: on several Venezuelan government and military officials for allegedly helping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with drug and weapons trafficking; on three Venezuelan companies for providing support to Iran; and on two Venezuelan individuals for providing support to Hezbollah. 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. Despite tensions in relations, the Obama Administration remains committed to seeking constructive engagement with Venezuela, focusing on such areas as anti-drug and counter-terrorism efforts.

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 the Chávez government. Venezuelans approved a constitutional referendum in February 2009 that abolished term limits, allowing Chávez to run for reelection in 2012. In September 2010 legislative elections, 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. Venezuela is scheduled to hold its next presidential election on October 7, 2012, with President Chávez running against Henrique Capriles Radonski, the unified opposition candidate. While Chávez’s continued popularity and use of state resources bode well for his reelection, high rates of crime, inflation, and other economic problems could erode his support. A wildcard is the health status of President Chávez, who has had three operations and treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer since mid-2011.

As in past years, there are concerns in the 112th Congress regarding the state of Venezuela’s democracy and human rights situation and its deepening relations with Iran. Several measures have been considered or introduced related to Venezuela. H.R. 3783, approved by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 7, 2012, would require the Administration to develop a “a strategy to address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.” H.R. 2542, approved by the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere December 15, 2011, would withhold some assistance to the Organization of American States unless that body took action to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter regarding the status of democracy in Venezuela. H.R. 2583, approved by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs July 19, 2011, includes a provision that would prohibit aid to the government of Venezuela. H.Res. 247, introduced May 4, 2011, would call on the Secretary of State to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Date of Report: March 29, 2012
Number of Pages: 57
Order Number: R40938
Price: $29.95

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