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Monday, October 15, 2012

Venezuela: Issues for Congress

Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

Under the rule of populist President Hugo 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 even 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. 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. Most opinion polls favor Chávez, but Capriles has been running an energetic campaign that has been gaining momentum and could potentially result in an upset victory. Until recently, a wildcard in the election was the health status of President Chávez. At this juncture, Chávez appears to have bounced back from two bouts of an undisclosed form of cancer, although his health has limited his campaign appearances. Looking ahead, however, Chávez’s health status raises questions about Venezuela’s political future. 

U.S. Policy 

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 Chávez government. 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 anti-drug 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. 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. 

Legislative Initiatives 

As in past years, there have been concerns in the 112th Congress regarding the state of Venezuela’s democracy and human rights situation and its deepening relations with Iran. H.R. 3783, approved by the House on September 19, 2012, would require the Administration to conduct an assessment and present “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. Other legislative initiatives include H.Res. 247, which would call on the Secretary of State to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism; and H.R. 6067, which includes a section imposing restrictions on U.S. nuclear cooperation with any country assisting the nuclear program of Venezuela or Cuba or transferring advanced conventional weapons or missiles to Venezuela or Cuba.

In action on the FY2013 foreign aid appropriations, the report to the House Appropriations Committee bill, H.R. 5857 (H.Rept. 112-494, reported May 25, 2012), directs that $5 million in Economic Support Funds be provided for democracy programs in Venezuela, the same amount appropriated in FY2012, and $2 million more than requested by the Administration. In contrast, the report to the Senate Appropriations Committee bill, S. 3241 (S.Rept. 112-172, reported May 24, 2012), recommends $3 million for democracy programs in Venezuela to be administered by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Date of Report: October 3, 2012
Number of Pages: 63
Order Number: R40938
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