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US Senate Hearing on Venezuela: Personal Observations

By Alexandra Beech,

The Committee on Foreign Relations Committee - Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs of the United States Senate held a hearing on Venezuela, which took place on Thursday, June 24, at 2:00 p.m. To read the testimonies, please click here.

The following are my personal observations on the hearing:

- The government-funded Venezuelan Information Office (VIO) arrived early at the US Senate hearing, like my friends and me. As visitors streamed into the section for public seating, they walked in carrying discreet white boxes filled with stapled sheets, which they handed out during the hearing. The first of the fifteen pages of their hand-out, titled “Venezuela’s Opposition: Setting the Stage for Violence?”, contains dated information, such as “[a] decision is forthcoming, and will be finalized on June 4, 2004...” The packet is a hodgepodge of articles from the National Catholic Reporter, as well as their own memos. It looks like what a college student would compile before writing a paper. There may be a good reason for this. Most of the VIO don’t look much older than college students, and most of them don’t look Venezuelan. They were being directed by an older blond woman and a man in a grey suit who was the first to arrive, even before they opened the door. Curious, I asked him if he was Mark Weisbrot. “I wish,” he joked. He was the only one with an overall nice demeanor. “There’s help for that,” I responded, and we both laughed. When the hearing coordinator noticed a VIO person handing out the packets, he ordered him to stop. I felt frustrated that my country is being represented in Washington by these kids, still walking around in back packs. I felt frustrated that Venezuelan Americans who were there because they love their country were denied entrance to the first panel because half the VIO office was there working. I also felt frustrated because the Venezuelan government violated the general democratic principles of a US Senate hearing, which is to allow both sides to be heard in peace. Even in the US, freedom of expression is a sham to them.

- Jeremy Bigwood, who revealed that the National Endowment for Democracy had provided funding for opposition groups, ambled in holding a camera. This time, he was wearing his photographer’s hat. Last year, when he interviewed me in Washington, he told me that he was writing an article for UPI. When he took my picture before the hearing, I walked over and introduced myself. He was taken off-guard, because in his hat as a photographer, Mr. Bigwood is a discreet man. This time, he said he was working “independently”. Then he walked over and sat on the floor right in front of the senators. During the hearing, I was bemused by the irony that the man responsible for their discussion on NED funding and the ensuing arrest warrants against Sumate was curled up inches away from their toes. After the hearing, Bigwood walked up and said that he remembered me, before saying goodbye. This morning, a relative Googled him. It turns out that on October 26, 2001, he was denied press credentials on Capitol Hill because the media outlet he represented was “too editorial”. When he represents himself, he is even more so. Today his photographs appeared in the government-funded vheadline site. So much for independence.

- Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez streamed in and walked around uncomfortably. It must feel uncomfortable to be in a room filled with employees or people from your own country who generally disagree with everything that you represent. It must be even more uncomfortable to know that a US Senate hearing is about to take place in which the government you represent will be asked to stop tampering with its own electoral and justice systems, and with guerrillas. He sat next to Jennifer McCoy, who seemed to enjoy his company. Even though he was formally thanked for his presence, Senator Coleman did not stick around to say hello afterwards.

- One panelist was annoyed that more senators weren’t there, given the strategic importance of Venezuela for the region. Those who were there, including Senator Coleman who called the hearing, Senator Nelson from Florida, and Senator Dodd from Connecticut, generally expressed concern about the untested electoral machines that the government planned to use for the referendum, the new Supreme Court packing law which could influence the outcome of the referendum, and the presence of international observers. Nelson spoke with his usual bravado, saying that the US should consider labeling Venezuela an unfriendly and hostile nation if it does not abide by democratic principles. A chill came over the room when he said he was “quite concerned about the future of our relations for President Chavez has made some outrageous statements such as praising Iraqi insurgents who attack American soldiers. He has also tried to use his oil supply relationship to leverage small nations in the Caribbean, in some cases to get them to oppose US policies. President Chavez has threatened to cut all oil exports to the United States.”

- During the second panel, Miguel Diaz from the Center for Strategic and International Studies was particularly succinct. Other panelists, such as Vivanco, wavered in their testimonies. Yes, the government’s action are dubious, Vivanco said, and yes, it has violated human rights, but the opposition attempted to overthrow Chavez in April 2002. On April 11, Chavez activated Plan Avila, which gave the military discretionary power to shoot unarmed civilians. Many generals rebelled against that, particularly when snipers started shooting an opposition march and nineteen people died. Why has the government never investigated the identity of the snipers? Which opposition leaders planned and executed the so-called “coup”? Where’s the evidence of the pre - April 11 planning that Mr. Weisbrot purports to have? Carmona’s failed reaction was an improvisation, not the culmination of master plan. Diaz described Chavez as “generally held in low esteem, boorish, and at best incompetent.” However, he said Chavez poses a threat, not only to Venezuelan democracy, but to regional stability as well. “What makes Chavez frightfully dangerous is that thanks to oil he has the financial wherewithal to support many of the anti-systemic forces that are festering throughout the region. Currently, the government has approximately US$24 billion in foreign exchange reserves available. Chavez has been sponsoring forces of questionable democratic credentials in Bolivia and Ecuador – all countries that are faltering in their commitment to democracy, where the balance could be tipped by this kind of intervention.”

- Senator Dodd, who has defended Chavez in the past, had to eat a little humble pie yesterday. There’s not a lot to defend now, when every institution in Venezuela has lost its autonomy. At the hearing, Dodd seemed obsessed with Roger Noriega, bullying him from the pulpit about statements that he made months ago about whether the opposition had gathered enough signatures. Even when Secretary Noriega clarified the issue, Dodd stuck to it. It seemed like a bad episode of Law and Order, where the cross examiner will not let go. “Move on, Senator Dodd”, is what a judge would have said. Even when Noriega left, Senator Dodd pursued the issue.

- Mark Weisbrot testified on behalf of the government. He said that he doesn’t receive funds from them, but he mingled a bit too much with the VIO to be completely independent. I don’t share back-packs with Enrique Mendoza or Cecilia Sosa. After his testimony, it seemed that the senators had heard enough of Weisbrot. Coleman, a Minnesotan not prone to impatience, stopped him from talking further, especially after Mr. Weisbrot wavered on whether it was OK that Maria Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaaz were being indicted for treason. Senators who have met Machado know that she is no Benedict Arnold. When Weisbrot approached Jennifer McCoy, he seemed to receive a cold shoulder, so he was left to the consolation of the VIO Bunch, who helped him carry his folders and “evidence” of plots.

- The hearing sent a clear message to Chavez that the US will not simply stand by if he ignores the country’s constitution. The senators agreed to continue supporting the efforts of the OAS and the Carter Center, which they praised extensively.

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