WASHINGTON ― More than a dozen progressive House Democrats, including Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), and firebrand freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), urge President Donald Trump to “change course” entirely on Venezuela in a letter sent Thursday.
The lawmakers, in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and obtained by HuffPost, are pushing the administration to formally rule out the possibility of military action against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. They also criticize Trump’s sanctions against Maduro and Venezuela’s state-owned oil company for “hurting ordinary people,” question the administration’s decision to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim president, and urge the U.S. to abandon actions that “indicate a pursuit of American military-led regime change.”
The lawmakers’ letter ― and their criticism of Trump’s economic sanctions in particular ― is another clear sign of an emerging progressive foreign policy bloc in the House and the Democratic Party, as a group of lawmakers looks to reshape Democratic debates not just on Venezuela but on international relations as a whole ahead of the 2020 presidential primaries.
“Here’s the mistake we make: We’re quiet when these interventions are happening,” Khanna, who spearheaded the letter, told HuffPost. “That was a mistake in Iraq, that was a mistake in Libya. Then afterwards we say, ’These interventions were a mistake and how do we rectify it?′ Instead, we need to speak up right in the beginning when we see signs of interventionism that are going to make situations worse.”
Many Democrats, including party leaders in both the House and Senate, welcomed Trump’s recognition of Guaidó, who proclaimed himself Venezuela’s legitimate constitutional leader on Jan. 23 and was immediately backed by the United States.
Although most Democrats, including top 2020 presidential candidates, have come out in opposition to the potential use of military force in Venezuela, they have been less quick to criticize the administration’s sanctions against Maduro, top Venezuelan officials and PDVSA, the country’s state-owned oil company. (Among 2020 candidates who responded to HuffPost requests in February, only Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren explicitly opposed sanctions. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders opposed regime change, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who also signed the letter, said the U.S. should “stay out of Venezuela.”)
“If we can be willing to stand on principle, then the Democratic Party should oppose broad-based sanctions that are hurting people there, and interventionism that has proven time and again to be counterproductive,” Khanna said. “That’s the direction our party needs to move.”
Khanna and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-Chair Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) circulated the letter in the House in recent weeks, and won support from progressive stalwarts Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) ― current and former Progressive Caucus co-chairs, respectively.
The group of progressive lawmakers say they “strongly condemn the Maduro government’s actions,” which have included “the killing of unarmed protestors, disregard for the rule of law, the holding of unfair elections, and blocking humanitarian aid from entering the country.”
Khanna, in an interview, slammed Maduro as an autocrat and human rights abuser. But he said that the Trump administration move to recognize Guaidó was “premature,” and that the U.S. “needs to let Venezuela work through the process of figuring out who their leader is.”
In the letter, the lawmakers also say they view the Trump administration’s actions as “counterproductive,” adding that the White House approach has bolstered Maduro’s position by playing “into the Venezuelan government’s narrative that the opposition is a proxy for the U.S.”
Those actions include the sanctions Trump initially placed on Maduro in 2017 and strengthened in January. The lawmakers say in the letter that the sanctions are “based on the questionable determination that Venezuela represents ‘an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security […] of the United States.’”
They warn that the existing sanctions “are already hurting ordinary people” and could further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis from Maduro’s economic mismanagement, which has caused spiraling hyperinflation, and food and medical shortages.
“Broad unilateral sanctions and threats of military action are making life worse for ordinary Venezuelans,” the letter states. “Rather than pursuing misguided policies which run counter to our own national interests, the U.S. should instead join other countries in promoting Venezuelan efforts to achieve constructive dialogue and democratic solutions to the current political crisis.”
Maduro became president of Venezuela in 2013, succeeding popular former socialist leader Hugo Chávez, who died that year. Since then, Maduro has presided over the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, brought on by plummeting global oil prices, and has lost support even from some devoted Chavista hotbeds within the country as it has descended into a humanitarian crisis. (Others remain fiercely loyal, especially since the U.S. recognized Guaidó, and pro-government protests have occurred, too.)
More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to the United Nations, and Maduro has responded to anti-government protests with increasingly authoritarian orders. Forces loyal to him have conducted brutal and deadly crackdowns against protesters and dissenters.
Maduro won a second term in May 2018, in an election marred by controversy and allegations of malfeasance. Venezuela’s opposition disputed the results, and the United States, European Union and some other Latin American nations refused to accept it as legitimate. Guaidó, a previously little-known opposition lawmaker, declared himself the legitimate leader two weeks after Maduro took the oath of office in January.
Influential Latin American democracies, especially those led by conservative presidents, and top European Union countries eventually joined the Trump administration in recognizing Guaidó.
Only the United States, however, has placed economic sanctions on Venezuela, and its strategy toward Maduro has become increasingly aggressive ― and political ― as he has refused to leave office.
In late February, the U.S. and Guaidó organized a humanitarian aid package meant for delivery to Venezuela, ignoring concerns from the International Red Cross and United Nations that the effort would politicize humanitarian missions in the country.
Pompeo made the delivery look even more political when he tweeted a propagandizing picture of a bridge Maduro had supposedly blockaded. In reality, the bridge in the photo had never been opened or used to deliver aid. (Khanna said he supported the effort to deliver humanitarian aid.)
Maduro’s forces blocked entry of the aid package into Venezuela on Feb. 23 in violent confrontations at the Colombian border ― a reaction the Trump administration may have been looking for in order to build support for a potential military intervention against Maduro.
The U.S., however, has remained isolated on that front, as most of its allies in the region oppose the use of military force. At home, Trump has used Maduro as an electoral punching bag, raging against the ills of “Venezuelan socialism” in campaign-style rallies in Florida even as his administration has cozied up to or refused to condemn dictators in other countries.
“It’s total electoral politics for 2020, and he wants to demagogue the issue,” Khanna said.
The Vatican, countries like Mexico and Uruguay, and a coalition of EU and Latin American nations are all attempting to coordinate dialogue aimed at reaching a peaceful solution between Maduro and the opposition.
The U.S. has been left out of those efforts, but the progressive lawmakers say in the letter that the White House should back attempts “to promote dialogue and help Venezuelans resolve their own problems.”
Also signing the letter were Reps. Hank Johnson (Ga.), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), José Serrano (N.Y.), Karen Bass (Calif.), Danny Davis (Ill.), and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.).