The fact that Hugo Chavez was not sworn in as mandated by the Venezuelan constitution was an example of the total disregard for the rule of law. This contempt for democratic principles has gone on for too long and the people of Venezuela deserve better from their leaders. We must remain mindful that elections in Venezuela are tainted to ensure the Chavistas win because they control the media and judicial sectors. Unfortunately, free and fair elections will not be possible if the Venezuelan electoral process is not cleansed of the endemic corruption and cronyism that has infected these institutions. Venezuelan voices should be heard so that they, not the authoritarian regime, can determine the future of their country. But they cannot do it alone and they need the support of the U.S. and democratic allies in the region to ensure the Inter-American Democratic Charter is upheld.
This support cannot be sustained if the Obama administration does not change the way it perceives U.S.-Venezuela relations. Since 2009, this administration has sought to engage the leftist regimes in the Western Hemisphere without any tangible successes. This same approach has failed with the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia but the State Department continues to fall into the same trap, refusing to learn from its mistakes. We should no longer ignore the abusive tactics used by these regimes to oppress their people and disregard the rule of law. The U.S. and responsible nations must not sit idly by and let these dictators defy democratic principles and abuse their authority in order to remain in power.
The Organization of American States (OAS) also shares blame in the deterioration of democracy in the Hemisphere. At every turn, when ALBA nations flaunted their constitutions and made their own rules of the game, the OAS remained silent. For an organization that claims to represent the interests of free peoples across the Hemisphere, this behavior is appalling and dangerous. The OAS must change course and be on the side of the people in the Hemisphere and remember its founding principles instead of placating to leftist regimes. The U.S. should leverage its influence in the OAS to make clear that violations of the democratic process and intimidation tactics used to suppress the media and free speech will not be tolerated.
We need a new course of action in the Western Hemisphere that advances our national security interests, defends democracy, and condemns violators of human rights. People across the hemisphere must know that for the U.S., freedom, democracy, and human rights are not mere ideals to be cherished, but are inalienable rights granted to us by birth, not bestowed upon us by governments. And when the U.S. takes a firm stance for freedom loving people in the Hemisphere, our security and the security of the Hemisphere becomes stronger. It is only when there is a void in leadership that rogue leaders welcome into our region enemies of the U.S. and its allies such as Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the terrorist organization Hezbollah.
Nicolas Maduro’s actions this week indicate that U.S. – Venezuela relations are already headed down a desolate road as he expelled two U.S. diplomats and blamed the U.S. for the illness of Chavez. This is a clear indication that Maduro does not wish to normalize relations with the U.S. and will continue to undermine our interests in the region and beyond. This is a golden opportunity for us to make good on our stated commitment to democratic ideals. I stand with the people of Venezuela in expressing the hope that the U.S. not simply stand by and observe, but demonstrate the courageous leadership for which it has been known.
Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican representing the 27th Congressional District in Florida, is chairman emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and current chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.