The top State Department official in charge of Latin America declined Wednesday — even when pressed — to call a Venezuelan election “illegitimate,” as evidence mounted that the vote for a new legislative body with nearly unfettered power was fraudulent.
Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, characterized Sunday’s election as “flawed” and said the U.S. will not recognize the new constituent assembly once it is seated as early as Wednesday.
“The election Sunday was a flawed attempt to undermine democratic institutions in Venezuela,” Palmieri said at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing. “We support the democratically elected National Assembly in its efforts to promote an enduring, peaceful solution to the crises in Venezuela.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was chairing the hearing, wasn’t satisfied.
Palmieri repeated himself. Again Rubio asked. Again Palmieri deflected, though each time he inched closer to Rubio’s position.
“I know the process was flawed,” Rubio said, taking Palmieri to task. “The outcome is this new constituent assembly. There cannot be a legitimate National Assembly and a legitimate constituent assembly. If the National Assembly is the only legitimate entity, the constituent assembly by definition is illegitimate.”
“I take your point,” Palmieri conceded. “Yes, sir.”
The State Department’s resistance to use “illegitimate” came after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley deployed the word Sunday. The White House, National Security Council and Treasury Department also adopted far harsher language against Venezuela in recent days, branding President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator” and referring to his government as a “dictatorship” that could be hit with escalating U.S. sanctions.
Critics have argued going hard after Maduro’s government is counterproductive because it gives him an anti-U.S. cause to rally supporters.
“Impose all the sanctions you want!” Maduro said in a televised speech Monday. “The Venezuelan people have decided to be free, and I’ve decided to be the president of a free people.”
In an interview published late Tuesday by Spanish news agency EFE and cited by Rubio, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America Michael Fitzpatrick said the U.S. wants “dialogue” with Maduro’s government.
“We respect the official government of Venezuela and of President Maduro at this time,” Fitzpatrick said.
In contrast, President Donald Trump has vowed “strong and swift” economic sanctions against Venezuela that have yet to materialize.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who took a few days off last week as the U.S. sanctioned 13 members of Maduro’s government, said Tuesday the administration is still considering “what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future — and wants to leave of his own accord — or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”
Read more here.