Special Session of the OAS Permanent Council on the Situation in Venezuela

Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Interim Permanent Representative of the United States to the OAS, addresses the Permanent Council, March 19, 2015.
Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Interim Permanent Representative of the United States to the OAS, addresses the Permanent Council, March 19, 2015.

Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Interim Permanent Representative of the United States to the OAS, delivered remarks at a special session of the Permanent Council outlining the U.S. position on the situation in Venezuela, March 19, 2015.

Thank you Madam Chair, good morning to one and all, esteemed ministers, Secretary General, permanent representatives and delegates,

This session has been a long time coming.

Over a year ago, the Hemisphere witnessed terrible street violence and social protest in Venezuela that shocked and saddened us all.  And here today – more than a year later – we have our first opportunity at the OAS to hear first-hand from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rodriguez about the causes that precipitated that violence, the current situation in the country, and – I hope – about how we as a democratic hemispheric community can support the Venezuelan government and its people to sit down in a constructive and respectful environment to work through their differences.

Let’s approach this discussion free from the false specter of foreign intervention, but in the spirit of respectful dialogue and a respect for the human and civil rights of all Venezuelan citizens.  That is certainly our intention today.

Venezuelans talking to Venezuelans, peacefully addressing the multiple economic, political and social challenges that exist today in their country.  That, Madam Chair, is the desired end state of U.S policy regarding Venezuela.

For this reason, the United States will continue to support regional efforts to promote reconciliation within Venezuela, as called for by UNASUR foreign ministers on March 14.

We have bilateral diplomatic channels with Venezuela to conduct our relations, and we have always been willing to utilize them.  We stand ready to do so now.

My government also appreciates this opportunity to explain what the March 9 Executive Order issued by President Obama does and what it does not do; how the language of the executive order has been misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Much has been said about this Executive Order in the media that is profoundly inaccurate.

We are happy to set the record straight, publicly and transparently.  And we look forward to continuing our dialogue, in a respectful fashion, in the days and weeks to come.

Madam Chair, let me begin by noting that the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which became U.S. law in December 2014, requires that when the President imposes sanctions, he must  use the authorities granted him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to block the U.S. assets of non U.S. individuals and corporations.

The IEEPA, first signed into law in 1977, authorizes a U.S. President to take this action based on a finding of an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security or foreign policy of the United States and a declaration of a “national emergency to deal with that threat.”

That is the language of the statute that the President is required to employ in order to implement the actions mandated by the law that was passed by Congress in December.

Over nearly 40 years since the inception of this legislation, we have declared such national emergencies dozens of times – using this very same language – for challenges ranging from undermining democratic processes and institutions in Belarus and Zimbabwe, to narcotrafficking in Colombia and Mexico.  These findings were not a “prelude to an invasion,” as has been erroneously alleged.   Indeed in the cases of Colombian, Mexican, and other organized crime figures, partner governments welcomed these announcements and actions as evidence of our shared responsibility to fight drug crime.

The President’s March 9 decision must be read in its entirety to fully appreciate that he is exercising a sovereign right to protect U.S. immigration prerogatives, at home.  And to protect the U.S. financial system from unwanted investors and their money, at home.

There is no extraterritorial component to this Executive Order, it is domestic legislation.

Every one of your countries has that same sovereign right, and exercises it routinely.  Indeed many of your governments have worked individually and cooperatively with each other, the United States, and international organizations to restrict the legal entry of any number of foreign travelers based on evidence or credible allegations of criminal activity, crimes against humanity, human rights abuses, terrorist activity, etc.”

Now as I have said, some have taken the IEEPA language out of context and suggested it shows the United States intends to act against the Venezuelan state.  Let me be very clear:  my government states for the record here today that is not the case.

We are not preparing a military invasion.

We are not seeking to destabilize or topple the Maduro government in a coup d’état.

We are not participating in an international conspiracy to hurt the Venezuelan economy or people.  We are Venezuela’s largest trading partner.

We simply want to prevent individual Venezuelans who we believe have abused the human rights of other Venezuelans from traveling to the United States or parking their money in our financial system.  It is that simple.

The Executive Order makes clear the issue at hand is the erosion of human rights and democracy in Venezuela.  And the U.S. response consists of the visa restrictions and asset blocking against individuals who meet the criteria in the Executive Order.  With this action, my government is simply saying that those Venezuelans who violate or abuse human rights or undermine democracy, are not welcome in the United States, nor are they allowed to use our financial system.

Despite what anyone may claim, that is all.

By the way, the Executive Order is a publicly available document which all of you can access, read, and – yes – even question.  We believe that discussion and dialogue over such issues lie at the core of responsive and accountable governance, and that is also why we welcome today’s session of this Council.

You should know that the evidentiary standards used to make these decisions are quite demanding.  Our Presidents do not invoke this legislation on a whim.  But when they do so, they do it knowing that it is our responsibility to make compelling cases, which we believe we have in these seven cases.  And even if you challenge our moral standing to call out those committing human rights violations and undermining democracy in other countries, deciding who comes into the United States and uses our financial system is our sovereign right.

My government has heard with respectful attention the views of those who believe it inadvisable to speak out publicly regarding the state of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and due process in Venezuela.  Some say this only increases the polarization in that country and makes it harder for democratic dialogue to take place.

While we respect the right to hold these views, we must ask:  If we at the OAS – an institution founded on democratic principles – do not speak out now, when will we do so?

We have witnessed many attacks on and arrests of peaceful protesters, increasing restrictions on civil society, disregard for the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the lack of judicial independence.

We note the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s recent decision to release four protesters after nearly a year in jail – this was an important step.  However, the continued imprisonment of Leopoldo Lopez and Daniel Ceballos, combined with the recent arrest and incarceration of Mayor Antonio Ledezma, and the threats against National Assembly Deputy Julio Borges, suggest the situation is still worrisome and merits attention.  The arrest of elected leaders on political charges by any member of the inter-American community should be a matter of concern to all of us.

Colleagues, we must not turn our backs on the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and the Inter American Democratic Charter.

The history of democratization in this Hemisphere was written with the ink of solidarity with those once denied their rights.  Without that international solidarity would it have been possible for former political prisoners to participate in democratic politics, and to win elections to the highest office in their lands?  Leaders like Dilma Rouseff, Michele Bachelet, and former President Jose Mujica.

Others beyond the United States have recognized the importance of reinforcing hard-won regional norms established to promote and defend democracy and have spoken out.  The long list of international actors who have voiced concerns about the human rights situation in Venezuela over the past year includes governments in this hemisphere and beyond, as well as respected international bodies such as the United Nations Committee against Torture, and the Secretary General of this Organization of American States.

My government claims no special moral standing to criticize, but my government does have the right and the obligation, as does every other OAS member state, to defend the principles reflected in international law.

My government also notes the current Venezuelan government has never spared its public criticism of U.S. policies with which it disagrees.  And many of your governments have, too, been the targets of criticism leveled from Caracas.   In democracies we confront critics – domestic and international – with respect, with transparency, and with a strict adherence to the norms of law.

My government does not believe that speaking in defense of human rights equates to subversion or interference in the sovereign affairs of another state.  Thanks in part to the groundbreaking work of this organization, from Resolution 1080 (1991) to the Inter-American Democratic Charter (2001), no one can today argue any government has the sovereign right to deny its citizens enjoyment of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But Madam Chair, lest anyone here still believe my government’s condemnation of human rights abuses in Venezuela conceals ill will towards Venezuela, allow me to state again categorically that the United States government is not seeking to undermine the government or the economy of Venezuela.

My government does not wish to see a Venezuela that is politically unstable or impoverished.  On the contrary, we want to see Venezuela thrive and return to the path of full and genuine democracy and prosperity.

More than ever, we want Venezuelans – in government and in the opposition – to address their economic problems constructively.

As I said earlier the United States is, after all, Venezuela’s largest trading partner, and the Venezuelan government enjoys unfettered access to the U.S. financial system.

We have time and again called for democratic dialogue in Venezuela and supported the efforts of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to promote such dialogue.

Madam Chair, the United States did not create the problems Venezuela now faces and we cannot solve them.  Venezuela’s political and economic problems are its own, and only the Venezuelan people can solve them.

The role of a respectful international community, mindful of the principles of sovereignty, can be to facilitate dialogue among Venezuelans.

Perhaps there are practical ways to help Venezuela get through its current crisis and create conditions so it is better able to meet the political, social, and economic challenges facing the Venezuelan people.

My government takes this opportunity to reiterate its profound regard, respect, and admiration for the people of Venezuela — and we underscore the value we place on enhancing relations between our two countries.

We remain willing to engage the Venezuelan government in respectful dialogue.

Madam Chair, we also support the efforts of other countries and regional organizations to promote political reconciliation in Venezuela, and we urge this Council to remain seized with the situation in Venezuela.

Thank you very much.