The World from The Hill: Calls for fresh approach to Venezuela as Chavez digs in

A fresh challenge to a South American strongman has fed bipartisan support for the White House to significantly change how it deals with Venezuela.

The Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee believe the Obama administration should focus engagement with Venezuela on reaching out to the revitalized opposition movement to President Hugo Chavez.

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Chavez lost his supermajority in Venezuela's National Assembly in parliamentary elections late last month after the opposition, which had boycotted previous votes, exceeded Chavez's United Socialist Party in the popular vote and gained 55 seats while the Socialists lost 43 (opposition totals include the minority party and a third party). Chavez reacted by vowing to "radicalize" his drive toward socialism even further and took immediate steps to speed up land nationalization and industrial takeovers.

Last week, the State Department said it was still in U.S. interests to send an ambassador to Venezuela, even though Chavez has deemed nominee Larry Palmer unsuitable for the post.

"We have profound differences with the Chavez government, but we are willing to engage that government just as we are others around the world," spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said that should entail helping "keep spirits up" among the opposition, who gained seats because Venezuelans are "tired of a lack of freedom."

"Washington ought to let the Venezuelan people know that we care about their freedoms, that we're monitoring it," Engel said. And the U.S. should have done "a little more of that" last year when questionable presidential elections in Iran brought pro-democracy demonstrators pouring into the streets in protest.

Engel's Republican colleague on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Rep. Connie Mack (Fla.), concurred, but expressed concern that electoral manipulation by Chavez would likely rig the 2012 presidential election.

"We should have been doing that all along the way," Mack said of backing opposition forces, but "there's not going to be a free and fair election in Venezuela as long as Chavez is at the helm.

"As much as we want to help the opposition, with the way he manipulates the election ... the only people who do better [at rigging the vote] are Ahmadinejad and Castro."

Both congressmen, in separate interviews with The Hill, lauded Venezuelans for coming out to vote — turnout was officially more than 66 percent — and for opposing Chavez despite reported threats and harassment to the political opposition. It was "gerrymandering" by Chavez, Engel said, that allowed him to still claim a majority in the assembly.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) had introduced a sense of the Senate resolution on Sept. 24, two days before the parliamentary elections, saying "the people and Government of the United States summarily reject any effort by President Chavez to invoke the punitive power of the state to intimidate or punish the people of Venezuela who exercise their right to express their political opinions, their right to assemble, and their right to vote in a free and fair elections." It was pushed into committee, but it isn't the first effort in Congress to hold Chavez's feet to the fire.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) in March introduced a resolution co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that, in part, "urges President Barack Obama to clearly reject and call attention to the violent measures taken by authorities in Venezuela against citizens who are exercising their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties."

Both Mack and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) have introduced separate resolutions addressing growing anti-Semitism in Venezuela. And Mack introduced a resolution nearly a year ago, with 37 co-sponsors, that would spark fresh conflict with Caracas but that he hopes can gain new traction in Congress.

House Resolution 872 calls for Venezuela to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Iran, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). Mack said it's time the bill made it out of committee and to the House floor.

"I believe the administration should immediately place Venezuela on a state sponsor of terror list," he said. "There's a clear connection in my opinion to terror organizations like the FARC."

Mack said "stronger actions" such as this are needed in addition to offering encouragement to Chavez's opponents.

"I'd like to see us move that piece of legislation, speak loud and clear to the administration," Mack said. "We'll see with the new Congress."

While not a co-sponsor of Mack's bill, Engel expressed similar concerns about Venezuela's ties to terrorism, particularly with Chavez's "newfound friend" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, and about terrorists potentially finding safe haven in South America and crossing the Mexican border when it was time to strike. In recent news reports, Basque ETA separatists said they received weapons training in Venezuela, an allegation Caracas denies and attributes to a Spanish smear campaign.

Both congressmen agree it's not going to get any easier for Chavez opponents in Venezuela, and neither the White House nor Congress should shy away from supporting change in the Bolivarian Republic.

"You can't ignore a guy who is willing to align himself with all of our enemies and willing to destroy his country on a path to a more socialist society," Mack said.

"Despots are always more defiant than ever when they have a verdict of their people that goes against them," Engel said. "Hugo Chavez has decided to be a despot, not a democrat."