Marco Rubio and Nancy Pelosi rarely see eye to eye.
But both the liberal Democratic leader from San Francisco and the conservative Republican from Miami agree on one thing:
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a brutal dictator.
“The President of Venezuela, to me, looks like he’s a thug and we just can’t let them exploit poor people in the country... with a message that looks like he’s their champion,” Pelosi said.
Ahead of a vote Sunday that could dramatically change Venezuela’s constitution in favor of Maduro, the tough talk from Pelosi and other liberal Democrats now mirrors the rhetoric of Miami Republicans who have long opposed Caracas.
As a result, any sympathy towards Maduro in Washington, even among liberal Democrats who once praised the leadership of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, has vanished.
Members of Congress who maintained a dialogue with Caracas during Chavez’s administration no longer speak to Maduro.
The leadership of the Washington-based Organization of American States is demanding free and fair elections.
And the White House declared the U.S. “will take strong and swift economic actions” if the Maduro regime goes ahead with the vote Sunday.
For pro-Venezuela politicians and diplomats in Washington, Chavez’s commitment to the country’s 1999 constitution was a redeeming characteristic for a leader who trafficked in anti-U.S. rhetoric during his 14 years in power.
“I’ve known Chavez and Maduro. Anytime we met, [Chavez] would always go into his pocket and bring out the constitution of Venezuela,” said U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat and the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013. “Unfortunately, what Maduro is doing is tearing up the constitution.”
Meeks maintained regular contact with Caracas even as Chavez accused the U.S. of orchestrating a failed 2002 coup and referred to former President George W. Bush as “the devil” in 2006.
But Maduro’s decision to annul the Venezuelan legislature in March, and widespread protests that have led to the deaths of more than 100 people, are too much to reconcile.
“He doesn’t seem to me to be same guy that I knew when he was the leader of the Parliament back when I first met him with Hugo Chavez or the individual I spoke with briefly after he became president,” Meeks said.
The congressman added that his conversation with Maduro in 2013 was about “getting diplomatic relationships going again.”
But something changed between 2013 and 2015, when Maduro arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and began suspending democratic norms.
“It seems to me at some point, I don’t know what happened, that he was not interested in having further dialogue, he’s not the same guy,” Meeks said. “Something has to happen to change what has been going on for years now. The lines have been crossed and there’s no attempt at trying to have reconciliation.”
That wasn’t the case years ago, when Chavez enjoyed amicable relations with U.S. officials appointed by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
“The name of the game was to engage,” said John Maisto, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1997 to 2000.
Maisto said despite Chavez’s antagonistic rhetoric toward business interests and the United States, he was deeply committed to Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states “the Venezuelan people will not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that runs counter to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or undermines human rights.”
Protesters, including a man who attacked government buildings with a helicopter in June, have said Maduro is disregarding Article 350.
“The current regime is blatantly violating the constitution by not having local elections, by not having referenda... by trampling separation of powers and the non-recognition of the legislature,” Maisto said. “They are crossing a red line.”
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