Is Venezuela Really an "Extraordinary Threat"? U.S. Sanctions Top Officials as Tensions Grow

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College and author of the forthcoming book, "Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know," spoke about the deteriorating relations between the United States and Venezuela. It comes as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday asked the National Assembly for increased power to protect the country’s integrity and sovereignty from what he described as "imperialist aggression." Back in December, President Obama endorsed sanctions on Venezuelan officials who allegedly violated the rights of protesters during demonstrations from last year. Salas described the unfolding events as a dramatic and unnecessary escalation of tensions between the two nations, calling it unproductive.

"On the one hand," he told Amy Goodman, "we’re expected to believe a response to the interests of the U.S., particularly in terms of Obama and addressing the right in the U.S., but the reality is, how it’s read in Latin America is, once again, the U.S. and big stick diplomacy. It’s read in terms of intervention. And the notion that the U.S. does not support coups is ludicrous on its face, and we have the 2009 coup in Honduras, which you extensively covered, which was—very clearly the U.S. was involved. Same thing with Lugo in Paraguay a couple of years later. So, obviously, the U.S. seeks to increase Venezuela’s isolation, or to dramatically increase Venezuela’s isolation, and continue a Bush policy of trying to inoculate Latin America from Venezuela, leading to essentially its own destabilization."

Below is an interview with Salas, followed by a transcript:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tensions between the United States and Venezuela are increasing after the Obama administration declared Venezuela to be an "extraordinary threat to national security" and slapped sanctions on seven top officials for alleged human right violations and corruption. On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro asked the National Assembly for increased power to protect the country’s integrity and sovereignty from what he described as, quote, "imperialist aggression."

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] President Obama has decided to put himself into a box with no way out, a box of failure. And he has decided that he wants to be remembered in the future like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. President Obama will be remembered in the future for his decision today and the aggression against the Venezuelan people, the noble people, because the people of Venezuela are a peaceful people. President Obama, you don’t have a right to attack us nor to declare that Venezuela is a threat to the people of the United States. You are the threat to the people of the United States, you who decide to invade, to kill, to finance terrorism in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: At the State Department, spokesperson Jen Psaki defended the new sanctions against Venezuela.

JEN PSAKI: There are specific reasons why each of those individuals under the executive order were sanctioned. The United States remains an important trading partner, is actually Venezuela’s largest trading partner. And despite the statements to the contrary from Venezuelan officials, we are not promoting instability in Venezuela. Rather, we believe respect for democratic norms and human rights is the best guarantee of Venezuela’s stability, hence our executive order. So allegations that these actions are an attempt to undermine the Venezuelan government are false. The goal of these sanctions is to persuade the government of Venezuela to change their behavior.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tensions between the United States and Venezuela have been escalating for the past few months. In December, President Obama signed legislation to impose sanctions on Venezuelan government officials accused of violating protesters’ rights during demonstrations last year when 43 people died, including demonstrators, government supporters and security officials. On February 19th, the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arrested for allegedly being involved in a U.S.-backed coup plot. Days later, Venezuela announced it had arrested an unspecified number of Americans for engaging in espionage and recruitment activities. Venezuela also announced a series of measures including visa requirements for U.S. citizens and restrictions and the downsizing of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. This all comes as Venezuela is facing an economic crisis in part because of the plummeting price of oil in recent months.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Claremont, California, where we’re joined by Miguel Tinker Salas. He is a professor at Pomona College in Claremont. Tinker Salas is the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and the forthcoming book, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Miguel Tinker Salas, welcome back to Democracy Now!

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Good morning. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can start off by talking about the significance of President Obama declaring Venezuela to be an "extraordinary threat" to the national security of the United States?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, I think it’s a dramatic escalation, and largely an unnecessary escalation, of existing tensions between both countries. What is the objective of this? Is the objective here to appease the right in the U.S.—

AMY GOODMAN: Looks like the video has just frozen. But let us go for a—ah, here. Professor Tinker Salas, go right ahead.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yes. Well, I think that it’s an unnecessary and a dramatic escalation of tensions between both countries. It comes on the heels of the fact that Obama, in December of 2014, issued the sanctions. But those sanctions come after the House approved sanctions against Venezuela. So it’s been an increase in tensions beginning since the time that Obama announced that he would begin to normalize relations with Cuba, so that, on the one hand, we have an effort, theoretically, to normalize relations with Cuba while we maintain an embargo, and, on the other hand, to create the image of Venezuela as the new Cuba, as the new country to be sanctioned. So, in many ways, it’s extremely counterproductive. On the one hand, we’re expected to believe a response to the interests of the U.S., particularly in terms of Obama and addressing the right in the U.S., but the reality is, how it’s read in Latin America is, once again, the U.S. and big stick diplomacy. It’s read in terms of intervention. And the notion that the U.S. does not support coups is ludicrous on its face, and we have the 2009 coup in Honduras, which you extensively covered, which was—very clearly the U.S. was involved. Same thing with Lugo in Paraguay a couple of years later. So, obviously, the U.S. seeks to increase Venezuela’s isolation, or to dramatically increase Venezuela’s isolation, and continue a Bush policy of trying to inoculate Latin America from Venezuela, leading to essentially its own destabilization.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor, you’ve made the comparison, or the contrast, really, between U.S. government reaction to alleged human rights violations in Venezuela versus what is happening in Mexico. Could you talk about that?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, the U.S. policy falls apart when we talk about that precise example. In the case of Venezuela, the issue is made—and it’s, again, a very condemnable act, the death of 43 people in Venezuela in March—in February of last year during protests. All sides condemn the violence. But in that case, people died on both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, military officers and police were targeted by right-wing protesters. So those actions are condemnable. And again, they merit attention of Venezuela, and they should be prosecuted. But the reality is that in Mexico 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, and hardly a peep from the U.S. It took weeks for the State Department to actually respond. So we have a duplicitous policy, on the one hand highlighting human rights issues in Venezuela, while on the other hand turning a blind eye to what is really a humanitarian crisis in Mexico, with over 80,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared and 15 million people being expelled from their own country, so that in that sense, when Latin America looks at U.S. policy, it seems rather duplicitous. And, in fact, it doesn’t hold up and increases the U.S. isolation in the region, particularly if we’re considering that in April we’re going to have the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the United States is not interfering in Venezuela, but then said it’s considering new actions to steer the Venezuelan government in a different direction.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: The fact is the Venezuelan government should stop trying to blame the United States and other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. The Venezuelan government actually needs to deal with the grave situation that it faces. The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government. Well, I can tell you that the Treasury Department and the State Department are obviously closely monitoring this situation and are considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play for you a recent exchange between State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki and Matt Lee, a reporter with the Associated Press.

REPORTER: President Maduro last night went on the air and said that they had arrested multiple people who were allegedly behind a coup that was backed by the United States. What is your response?

JEN PSAKI: These latest accusations, like all previous such accusations, are ludicrous. As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not support political transitions by nonconstitutional means. Political transitions must be democratic, constitutional, peaceful and legal. We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.

MATT LEE: Sorry. The U.S. has—whoa, whoa, whoa—the U.S. has a long-standing practice of not promoting—what did you say? How long-standing is that? I would—in particular in South and Latin America, that is not a long-standing practice.

JEN PSAKI: Well, my point here, Matt, without getting into history—

MATT LEE: Not in this case.

JEN PSAKI: —is that we do not support, we have no involvement with, and these are ludicrous accusations.

MATT LEE: In this specific case.

JEN PSAKI: Correct.

MATT LEE: But if you go back not that long ago, during your lifetime even—

JEN PSAKI: The last 21 years?

MATT LEE: Well done. Touché. But, I mean, look, does "long-standing" mean 10 years in this case? I mean, what is—

JEN PSAKI: Matt, my intention was to speak to the specific reports.

MATT LEE: I understand, but you said it’s a long-standing U.S. practice, and I’m not so sure how—depends on what your definition of "long-standing" is.

JEN PSAKI: We will—OK.

REPORTER: Recently in Kiev, whatever we say about Ukraine, whatever, the change of government in the beginning of last year was unconstitutional, and yet you supported it. The Constitution was not—

JEN PSAKI: That is also ludicrous.

AMY GOODMAN: That was State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki being questioned by reporters. Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, if you could respond to both that exchange and also Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: I would have loved if that kind of exchange would have got broader diffusion in the U.S. press, but the fact is that it hasn’t. And we continue to have the belief that the U.S. does not—is not involved in unconstitutional change in Latin America. And as a historian, the record speaks just the opposite, from ’53 in Guatemala to the Dominican Republic, to Chile in ’73, and through the support of the Argentine military dictatorships and Brazil, and, if we want to go even closer, to 2002 in Venezuela, when the U.S. actually did support a coup against the democratically elected Hugo Chávez, the shortest coup in the world, and the coup that brought Chávez back to power, and then again in Honduras in 2009, and, not shortly thereafter, in Paraguay with Lugo, where they said it was a democratic transition, when in fact it was an unconstitutional shift in power. So, again, the notion that the U.S. has not supported both military coups directly or through what they call soft power is really ludicrous.

And, in fact, we should turn the question around. If they want to support democracy, I think the best thing the U.S. can do in the case of Venezuela and other countries is to pull back and let things develop on their own. I think you have a very strong opposition in Venezuela. It can speak for itself. You have a government force and other social forces that are organized in those countries. And I think the best thing, in the case of Mexico and in the case of Venezuela, is for the U.S. to stop intervening and to allow these countries to resolve their own—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, having a little trouble with the video—but keep on going—with our connection to him over at Pomona College in Claremont. You’re back, Professor Tinker Salas.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Thank you very much. I think, fundamentally, there are fundamental economic issues in Venezuela which the government has to address. But the reality is that by the U.S. intervening in this way—and let’s be clear: The effort to sanction individuals is an intervention in Venezuela. And it’s not going to be read as simply the sanction against seven individuals; it’s going to be read as a sanction against Venezuela and the government of Venezuela and the country of Venezuela. And that’s unfortunate, because it detracts attention from the real economic issues. And the government is responsible for those issues, and it’s been slow to act.

But in many ways, this will now provide the context for what will happen at the Summit of the Americas, where the U.S. had expected that it was going to arrive and be celebrated for having opened up relations with Cuba, but now even Cuba is criticizing the U.S. and saying they will not be a part of any effort on the part of the U.S. to isolate Venezuela. And that seems to have been the strategy—open up with Cuba, while at the same time isolating Venezuela and making Venezuela appear as the bad boy of the left in Latin America. And I think that policy failed under Bush, and it’s failed under Obama, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but, Professor Tinker Salas, what about all of the reports we’re seeing in the commercial media here in the United States about the increasing crisis in Venezuela? What’s your assessment of how President Maduro has functioned since he succeeded to the presidency after the death of President Chávez? And what about these issues of increasing economic—a spiraling inflation and economic problems in the country?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: No doubt. I think President Maduro has been very slow in responding to the crisis. I think that effort to retain an unworkable exchange rate, three different exchange rates, and protect the Venezuelan bolívar was untenable. I think that they took way too long to respond to that process. I think that may have exacerbated the crisis. There have been steps taken recently to let the Venezuelan bolívar float, to actually normalize that process. They should be able to provide greater access to dollars. Venezuela is—it consumes—it imports most of what it consumes. That’s been the sad reality since 1935, when Venezuela became the world second-largest exporter of oil and then became the world’s first-largest exporter of oil. And that happens to be part of the culture and society of Venezuela. Many Venezuelans have been raised with the notion that they’re a privileged country, that therefore they’re entitled to a set of benefits, from the cheapest gasoline in the world to subsidized food prices. And this government has been slow to respond to that. And with the drop in price of oil, that model became largely untenable. And I think that the government has not taken sufficient steps. It has acknowledged corruption. It has acknowledged bottlenecks in the distribution. It has acknowledged inefficiency. It has to address those issues. And Venezuelans need to hold them accountable to those issues. That’s why, in many ways, the U.S. issue becomes a distraction, because as the U.S. intervenes in this context, it simply becomes a side issue in what is largely an economic internal matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Venezuelans marked the second anniversary of the death of President Hugo Chávez. This is Domingo Rebolledo, who is president of the Sinaí Communal Council.

DOMINGO REBOLLEDO: [translated] I feel the same pain I felt two years ago. Talking about Chávez is like talking about the loss of a father, and we truly feel like this, because today we have a working-class president, a revolutionary, a socialist, and many of us have made the error of saying that Maduro is not Chávez. However, it’s totally the opposite, because everyone says, "We are Chávez."

AMY GOODMAN: Venezuelan opposition member María Corina Machado also commented on the death of Hugo Chávez.

MARÍA CORINA MACHADO: [translated] We are reaping what was sown during Hugo Chávez’s mandate—the destruction of the productive capacity of the country, of institutions and its independence, including the confrontation and polarization of society as state policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Tinker Salas, if you could respond and also comment on whether the U.S. would be taking this tack in dealing with Venezuela if it didn’t have oil?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: No, I think fundamentally that Venezuela has the world’s largest reserves on oil. And I think oil—I think I’ve always said, follow the oil, and you will be able to understand what is happening in Venezuela, what is happening in between Venezuela and the U.S., what is happening between Venezuela and the rest of the world. So I think that’s fundamental.

I think that the figure of Hugo Chávez is still the most powerful political figure in Venezuela. He represents a watershed in Venezuelan history, contrary to what María Corina Machado has indicated. Nonetheless, I think there is some truth to the fact that what Venezuela faces today is some of the excesses that occurred during the Chávez period and some of the issues that weren’t fully resolved during the Chávez period. And that is the dependence on oil. That is a nonfunctioning exchange rate. And that is the dramatic growth without at the same time a parallel growth in productive capacity within the country. Those remain some of the challenges the country faces, and it highlights the dependence that many Third World countries have on export products, particularly one as strategic as oil.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about, since the death of Chávez, the impact on all of the regional alliances that Chávez sought to create, not only low-cost oil to other countries in Latin America, but new economic unions with—of the South in terms of promoting economic integration? What’s happened there?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well, I think that we’re talking about the Community of Latin America and Caribbean Nations, the CELAC; UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations. We’re talking about the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. I think those are now institutionalized at many levels. But undoubtedly, the impact of the absence of Chávez has been felt. There is a vacuum of leadership in the region, one that has yet to be filled directly. Or maybe we shouldn’t expect it to be filled in much the same way. Increasingly, we have a collective leadership. We have the voices of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. We have the voices of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador. We have multiple voices that are evident here.

But it’s also clear that they have been under attack. The U.S.'s resolution on sanctions on Venezuela, I think, seeks to promote fissures within those alliances. We've seen Biden traveling to the Caribbean, Biden traveling to Central America, trying to find fissures in the other institution, which was Petrocaribe. So I think that they have been under difficult conditions. I think that they have been tested. I think the U.S. is looking for fissures within those alliances by promoting the Pacific Alliance of nations that have bilateral trade relations with the U.S. and by promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So I think that that looms large now in the context of the drop in oil prices and the drop of other export products. So the U.S. is clearly strategically testing that relationship. And we’re going to see how that carries out with the Summit of the Americas in April in Panama.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any relationship between what’s happening—the U.S. approach to what’s happening in Venezuela and the U.S. involvement in the negotiations with Iran right now?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: I don’t see necessarily a direct link, but I see some continuation in how these relations have been in fact linked and coupled in the U.S. And that is that the U.S. has increasingly—the Obama administration is taking a more right tack, particularly as it negotiates with Iran, towards Venezuela, and the same way, as it negotiates with Cuba, it takes more of a right tack in dealing with Venezuela, so that while it tries to cover its right flank in the U.S., while it negotiates with Cuba and it negotiates with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Miguel Tinker Salas, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. We look forward to your next book, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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