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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Venezuela: Background and U.S. Relations

Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

While historically the United States has had close relations with Venezuela, a major oil supplier, friction in bilateral relations rose over the past decade under the leftist populist government of President Hugo Chávez, who died in March 2013 after battling cancer for almost two years. First elected in 1998, Chávez had won reelection to another six-year term in October 2012, capturing about 55% of the vote compared to 44% for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. After Chávez’s death, Venezuela held presidential elections in April 2013 in which acting President Nicolás Maduro, who had been serving as Chávez’s vice president, received 50.61% of the vote, compared to 49.12% for Capriles (a margin of 1.49%). In both of those presidential elections, the incumbent candidate benefited from the use of state resources and media for his campaign. The opposition filed challenges to the 2013 election results that were ultimately rejected by Venezuela’s Supreme Court. Venezuela’s upcoming municipal elections, scheduled for December 8. 2013, will be an important test of strength for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). The Maduro government faces significant challenges, including deteriorating economic conditions and high rates of crime and violence. 

U.S. Policy 

In recent years, U.S. policy makers and Members of Congress have been concerned about the deterioration of human rights and democratic conditions in Venezuela as well as the Venezuelan government’s lack of bilateral cooperation on anti-drug and counterterrorism efforts and its relations with Iran. In September 2013, President Obama issued the ninth annual determination that Venezuela had “failed demonstrably” to meet its international counternarcotics obligations. The State Department maintains that individual members of the Chávez government and security forces were credibly reported to have engaged in or facilitated drug trafficking activities. The United States has imposed financial sanctions on eight current or former Venezuelan officials for allegedly helping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia with drug and weapons trafficking. The United States has also imposed sanctions on three Venezuelan companies for support to Iran and on several Venezuelan individuals for providing support to Hezbollah. Despite these tensions, the Obama Administration has maintained that the United States remains committed to seeking constructive engagement with Venezuela. In June 2013, after a meeting with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua in Guatemala, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed hope that the two countries could move quickly to the appointment of ambassadors, and said that the two countries had agreed to continue high-level dialogue. Efforts to engage with Venezuela, however, have been complicated by the Maduro government’s strong rhetoric and actions, including the offer of asylum to Edward Snowden, accused of leaking U.S. classified information. 

Legislative Initiatives 

Over the past decade, developments in Venezuela and U.S. relations with the country have largely been oversight issues for Congress, with various hearings held and resolutions approved or introduced in each chamber. Congress has also appropriated funding over the years for democracy-related projects in Venezuela through the annual foreign aid appropriations measure. To date in the 113
th Congress, two legislative initiatives have been introduced related to Venezuela: S.Res. 213 would express support for the free and peaceful exercise of representative democracy in Venezuela and condemn violence and intimidation against the country’s political opposition; and H.R. 1687 would, among other provisions, provide for the imposition of visa and financial sanctions against certain listed officials of four governments belonging to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA)—Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Congress also faces consideration of the FY2014 foreign aid appropriations measure (H.R. 2855, S. 1372); the Administration’s request includes $5 million to support civil society efforts to build and protect democratic freedoms and protect human rights in Venezuela.

This report, which will be updated periodically, analyzes the political and economic situation in Venezuela and the country’s foreign policy orientation. It then examines U.S. relations and policy toward Venezuela and several key issues that have been at the forefront of congressional interest: democracy and human rights; energy, including U.S.-Venezuelan energy linkages; drug trafficking; and terrorism issues, including Venezuela’s relations with Iran. An appendix provides links to selected executive branch reports on Venezuela.

For additional information see CRS Report RS21049,
Latin America: Terrorism Issues, which examines Iran’s relations with Latin America.

Date of Report: September 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 39
Order Number: R43239
Price: $29.95

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