WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the Senate floor Thursday to speak out on the humanitarian, economic and political crisis affecting the Venezuelan people under President Nicolas Maduro. Senator Cardin delivered the following remarks as prepared for delivery:
“I come to the floor to speak about the rise of a failed state in Venezuela and the man-made tragedy that President Maduro has imposed on his citizens.
“For three months, Venezuelans have taken to the streets in daily protests. They are speaking out against their country’s economic collapse, against widespread food shortages and the disintegration of their medical system, against endemic corruption, and against a government that denies them their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“Appallingly, President Maduro has responded to the protests by unleashing his National Guard. As a recent Washington Post editorial stated, ‘Mr. Maduro and the corrupt clique around him are hanging on by the brute force of tear gas, water cannons, mass arrests, and shootings by snipers.’
“Since April, Venezuela’s increasingly unstable crisis has left over 75 dead, thousands jailed, and thousands more injured. Yet, instead of listening to his people’s legitimate demands and mitigating this tragedy, President Maduro is attempting to rewrite the constitution – despite widespread opposition. Additionally, he declared this week ‘what couldn’t be done with votes, would be done with weapons.’ With Maduro threatening to use arms against his people, one can only imagine the bloodshed and abuses will continue unabated.
“But, despite these threats, protests endure because Venezuelans see no alternatives. They have no other recourse against standing in lines for endless hours to scour the empty shelves at their markets. They have no other way to channel their sorrow over the spike in maternal and infant mortality rates in hospitals that lack supplies to treat the most basic diseases. And, they have no other way to express outrage at the military profiting from corruption in food procurement contracts even while children increasingly suffer the ravages of malnutrition.
“Parallel to the protests, however, chaos is becoming commonplace. In the past 72 hours, National Guard troops have stormed the National Assembly and assaulted opposition legislators. The Supreme Court has stripped Attorney General Luisa Ortega of her authorities for her criticism of Maduro.
“We’ve seen lootings and the burning of government buildings. And, alarmingly, a rogue police officer commandeered a helicopter and launched grenades and small arms fire while flying over the Supreme Court. These incidents from just the last three days should make it clear to all that we are now dealing with a failed state in our hemisphere.
“As this crisis cripples Venezuela, I call on all sides to refrain from violence. I also want to recognize that the current situation is the product of 18 years of systematic efforts to dismantle Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
“Since coming to power, President Maduro – like Hugo Chávez before him – has filled the ranks of government with loyalists that have led the economy to hyperinflation and the brink of default. State oil company PDVSA – the country’s only source of revenue – has been purged of its expertise. And, in a truly devastating blow to democracy and the rule of law, the judiciary has been entirely sapped of its independence so that it now functions as a political appendage of the Executive branch.
“In the 18 months since the opposition coalition won control of the National Assembly, the Supreme Court has overturned every piece of legislation passed, gave itself authority to approve the national budget, and in April temporarily usurped the rest of the legislature’s authorities.
“Additionally, as Venezuela’s civilian and military justice systems have become accomplices to persecution and torture, the number of political prisoners has soared. Leopoldo Lopez… Judge Afiuni … Daniel Ceballos … these are just the most well-known names among the more than 350 political prisoners recognized by Venezuelan human rights NGO Foro Penal.
“It is no surprise that the decay of judicial independence has led to an alarming rise in corruption and impunity. It is now a statement of fact that senior officials have siphoned billions – billions – out of Venezuela and are engaged in the illegal drug trade.
“In response, the U.S. has designated a dozen people under Kingpin sanctions – including Vice President Tareck Al-Aissami. Interior Minister Reverol was indicted in the U.S. last year for drug trafficking. Even Maduro’s nephews were convicted in the U.S. on drug charges.
“The sum of these trend lines is truly disturbing. Today, Venezuela is a failed state where a cabal of authoritarian leaders profit from links to corruption and drug trafficking, while the Venezuelan people are subjected to precarious humanitarian conditions and human rights abuses. Against this backdrop, we require little explanation why more than 18,000 Venezuelans sought asylum in the U.S. last year.
“As if all of this wasn’t enough, in late 2016, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA used its U.S. subsidiary Citgo as collateral to secure a loan from Rosneft, a company that is controlled by the Russian government and is currently under U.S. sanctions. The result is that the Russian government holds at least 49.9 percent of Citgo’s mortgage and could come into control of critical U.S. energy infrastructure, including refineries, terminal and a large network of pipelines. This should concern every member of the Senate.
“So the question for the U.S. and the international community is how to respond?
“Thankfully – supported by a growing diplomatic coalition that includes Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Canada and the U.S. – the Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro is marshalling international pressure. Mr. Almagro has called on President Maduro to heed the demands of his citizens – free political prisoners, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance, commit to a timetable for overdue elections, and restore the authority of the National Assembly.
“However, despite Mr. Almagro’s leadership, the result of last week’s meeting of OAS foreign ministers was a stunning failure to reach consensus on a hemispheric response. Appallingly, eight countries refused to vote their conscience, among them Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and El Salvador, Trinidad and Suriname.
“As efforts at the OAS continue, all must remain clear that there are no ‘alternative facts’ when it comes to Venezuela, there is just a man-made tragedy that demands collective action.
“While providing full support for multilateral diplomacy, the U.S. must also lead. In May, I introduced bipartisan legislation to address the multifaceted crisis in Venezuela. My bill will authorize humanitarian assistance and require the State Department to coordinate an international approach to humanitarian challenges. The legislation will also provide strong Congressional backing for OAS efforts, as well as funding for international election observation and civil society groups working to defend human rights and democratic values.
“Given rising instability in Venezuela, the bill will codify two lines of targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in corruption and undermining democratic governance – the very authorities the Administration used to rightly sanction members of the Venezuelan Supreme Court last month.
“Finally, the bill would require the State Department and the U.S. Intelligence Community to prepare a report on the role of Venezuelan officials in corruption and drug trafficking.
“As the instability in Venezuela grows, every day we decide not to act only makes the crisis worse. It’s time for the Senate to approve the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act.”