US and Venezuela: Don't fan the flames, put out the fire
US President Barack Obama's Executive Order imposing sanctions on another seven officials of the Venezuelan government for alleged intimidation of political opponents was boilerplate. In other words, the language is the standard government-speak used when measures of this kind are enacted. Once Obama had decided to go the route of imposing sanctions on government officials, he was required by law to declare "a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela".
Given that US law requires this language in the circumstances of the Executive Order, informed diplomats in Washington and elsewhere might have urged the Venezuelan government to be measured in its response, recognising that, beyond the sanctions, no further action would follow.
But, anger by the Maduro government with the US administration has reached such a boiling point that the response was every bit as heated as the language of Obama's boilerplate declaration. Thus, President Maduro accused the US of planning to invade Venezuela.
Some Latin American governments have joined Venezuela in condemning the US; others have been silent. But, quiet diplomatic advocacy to promote peace between the US and Venezuela is arguably the best course that all Latin American and Caribbean governments might take in the present situation. The course should not be silence alone; it should be accompanied by active behind-the-scenes diplomacy to tone down the fiery rhetoric between the two governments in the interest of hemispheric peace, security, and economic and social progress in the first instance. Once the level of the rhetoric is reduced, real efforts at promoting a meaningful dialogue between the US and Venezuela should follow.
Should a group of Latin American and Caribbean countries choose to be honest brokers and peacemakers, it is to be hoped that both the US and Venezuelan governments would give them a good hearing and commit to act to resolve the festering and sore relations between them.
The United States government says that the sanctions being applied against Venezuelan officials are aimed at the promotion and protection of human rights while the Venezuelan government regards US actions as designed to overthrow it. The two countries are signatories to the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter which upholds both "non-intervention" and the "promotion and protection of human rights. Within that Charter, therefore, are elements that could be used to bring the countries to the table of dialogue.
After all if the US administration could be working to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and ultimately to lift the outdated trade embargo against it, there is every reason to consider talking with the Maduro government about human rights issues. Of course, the Venezuela government, like the Cuban government, would have to want to engage in such talks.
Such a process would have to start with an end to belligerent public language on both sides. In this regard, in as much as US law may have required President's Barack Obama's Executive Order to be tough, diplomacy should have advised against language that the outgoing Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, described as "quite harsh".
Venezuela itself is facing severe economic problems, including inflation and scarcity of some items. Loss of revenues due to falling world oil prices has put the Maduro government under great pressure to continue to fight against poverty that it has waged over the last 14 years. Undoubtedly, the political opponents of President Maduro have taken advantage of the situation – as would politicians in similar situation in any part of the world. This has led to heightened political tensions within Venezuela and increased intolerance of dissent.
Governments of small Caribbean countries have to be careful about their own role in the tempestuous relations between the US and Venezuela. Caribbean countries are friends of both and look to them to satisfy different but important economic needs. The US is the Caribbean region's largest trading partner for goods and services while Venezuela has been a life line to the majority of Caribbean countries through its oil facility – PetroCaribe – under which a significant portion of the price of oil and gas is converted into extremely soft loans.
But care not to take sides in the worsening relations between the US and Venezuela should not prohibit these countries from promoting an end to belligerence and an atmosphere of dialogue. For sure, small Caribbean countries could not by themselves be brokers of peace. However, they may be well-placed to initiate such a process in collaboration with key Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and others.
They should at least try. Taking sides would be unconstructive and unproductive. Quietly trying through diplomatic channels would be constructive and beneficial.
The 2015 Summit of the Americas is just weeks away in Panama on April 10 and 11. It should be a Summit at which for the first time all countries of the Americas are present; where Cuba would be welcomed to the table; and President Obama could celebrate with other leaders, including Raul Castro, the normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba.
The theme of the meeting is: "Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Co-operation in the Americas". A big challenge to such co-operation now is the troubling relations between two important hemispheric nations. And, the responsibility of their neighbours is not to fan the flames, but to extinguish the fire.
Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com (Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University)