January 25, 2023 | Washington Examiner

How human rights activists chased off Venezuela’s strongman

January 25, 2023 | Washington Examiner

How human rights activists chased off Venezuela’s strongman

The strongman leader of VenezuelaNicolas Maduro, was due to attend a heads of state summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Buenos Aires on Monday. Maduro planned to hold important bilateral talks and use the podium to advance his anti-American agenda. Moments before departing Caracas, however, he sent his newly appointed foreign minister instead.

What Maduro feared was not Washington’s sanctions or criminal indictments, although he faces both. Rather, the threat he faced was from opposition activists in Argentina who were pushing the country’s courts to hold Maduro accountable for his crimes. Caracas denounced the “neo-fascists” who sought to intimidate Maduro at the behest of the “North American empire.” Yet the Biden administration was blindsided, too. There is a lesson here for Washington: It should be working with Latin American advocates of the rule of law to challenge the region’s unrepentant autocrats.

Maduro’s response was typical of dictators everywhere. Their ministries of truth routinely present setbacks as progress and disaster as triumph. When failure is too hard to occlude, they turn to blaming it on dark plots and conspiracies. That way, humiliating defeats can be spun as strategic repositioning: advance by retreat, so to speak.

Maduro may be Venezuela’s uncontested caudillo. But outside his fiefdom, he is a fugitive from justice. The U.S. Department of Justice has indicted him on charges of drug trafficking, narcoterrorism, and money laundering. The U.S. Department of Treasury has sanctioned him. The U.S. Department of State has offered a $15 million reward for information leading to his capture and extradition. The long arm of U.S. justice may not reach him in Caracas, but Maduro’s much-anticipated visit to Buenos Aires mobilized an effort to get Argentinian authorities to arrest him on arrival. Media coverage, high-profile criticism by opposition leaders, demonstrations, a parliamentary resolution to declare Maduro persona non grata in Argentina and a request to the U.S. Embassy to have its Justice Department issue an international arrest warrant galvanized public opinion. This created a possibly embarrassing situation for Maduro’s hosts.

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the real power behind the throne, are staunch allies of Maduro’s regime. But as much as they may wish, their justice system is nothing like Venezuela’s kangaroo courts. Argentina is still a democracy where the opposition has a voice. The country’s prosecutors and judges are still, by and large, fiercely independent. They recently convicted the sitting vice president for corruption — although she is allowed to end her term. Maduro could have been next.

Other precedents show that Washington’s indictments can reach far overseas, giving Maduro good reason to pause and rethink his travels. One of his closest associates, Alex Saab, also wanted by U.S. justice, was detained while his aircraft was on a technical stopover in Cabo Verde in 2020 and eventually extradited to the U.S. in 2021. Last year, owing to U.S. sanctions, Argentine authorities seized a Venezuelan cargo plane in Buenos Aires. It is still on the tarmac. Authorities prevented its mixed Iranian Venezuelan crew from leaving Argentina for three months. Its members are still under judicial investigation. It must have occurred to Maduro and his advisers that Saab’s and the aircraft’s fate could now be his, even in Argentina.

Notwithstanding Venezuelan propagandists’ talk of dark conspiracies, the Biden administration did not seem to have been aware that opposition activists in Argentina, exercising their constitutional rights, could derail a state visit that the White House had no intention to block. In fact, the White House did not seem to mind that Maduro was scheduled to attend the CELAC Summit alongside the Cuban and Nicaraguan dictators Miguel Diaz-Canel and Daniel Ortega. Rather, it sent a high-profile delegation to Buenos Aires to attend the summit.

Nevertheless, the White House might take stock of the lessons from Maduro’s precipitous withdrawal: U.S. sanctions and prosecutorial powers can instill fear in despots, inspire human rights activists, and inflict significant damage on America’s adversaries. Maduro’s future travels may be fewer and farther between as a result. Washington should use these powers more often, especially in concert with pro-democracy activists who share the U.S. interest in ousting thugs like Maduro and repairing the devastation they have wrought across the hemisphere.

Ultimately, isolating conspiracy-obsessed dictators yields better outcomes than negotiating with them.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @eottolenghi


Iran-backed Terrorism Sanctions and Illicit Finance