U.S. should not restore diplomatic relations with Venezuela until it stabilizes

The Obama administration’s recent failed attempt to appease Cuba’s regime with concessions should be a lesson that normalizing diplomatic relations with a hostile, undemocratic regime without conditions or a strategy makes no sense.

In July 2010, Patrick Duddy, the last accredited U.S. ambassador to Caracas, was expelled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez following spurious charges of “coup plotting.”

Chavez then rejected career diplomat Larry Palmer, Duddy’s proposed replacement, before the U.S. Senate could even take up his nomination.

Despite the administration’s efforts to “normalize” relations with Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, the only response from Venezuela has been insults, wild accusations and the ouster of U.S. diplomats — most recently in February 2014.

It is natural to want an accredited U.S. ambassador in Caracas to defend our interests there. However, normal diplomatic ties should be part of a strategy to promote U.S. values, democracy, human rights and security.

In contrast, Maduro’s only interest has been to use Washington as foil to whip up support for his regime with his rabid base and in the region.

The Dec. 6 congressional elections in Venezuela gave the democratic opposition a landslide victory and supermajority in the National Assembly.

In an attempt to block the will of the Venezuelan people, President Maduro’s Socialist Party has packed the Supreme Court with cronies who intend to undercut the assembly’s powers, including its oversight of government expenditures and their plans to release political prisoners.

The deployment of a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela now, in the midst of a developing constitutional crisis, would be cast by Maduro as a sign that Washington is satisfied with the status quo.

Instead, the United States should rally the world’s democracies and call on the Organization of American States to support the people’s will in Venezuela.

Although some Venezuelan opposition leaders might welcome a stronger U.S. presence in Caracas, the U.S. State Department can play that role multilaterally at the OAS without sending mixed signals by exchanging ambassadors with the current regime.

Before normalizing diplomatic ties, the United States should first confirm that the National Assembly is able to exercise its legitimate functions freely, including providing amnesty to political prisoners, replacing members of the judiciary and electoral authorities, and overseeing the executive branch.

The Obama administration must also demand that the U.S. Embassy in Caracas be restored to its normal functions, many of which have been restricted by both Maduro and Chavez before him.

Venezuela should accept and accredit a full contingent of U.S. diplomats who will have unfettered access to people from all sectors of society as well as government officials, including those in the National Assembly.

The U.S. Embassy should also be able to offer the same sort of technical assistance and exchange programs regularly offered throughout the world.

Another top priority should be the restoration of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration personnel, who were expelled from Venezuela without cause in 2005. The Maduro regime should make available for questioning by U.S. law enforcement and prosecutors any official now facing a formal investigation. Local authorities also should be instructed to cooperate with ongoing U.S. prosecutions.

Until these essential steps are taken, sending a U.S. ambassador to Caracas is unjustified. Worse yet, it would signal that the Obama administration is neutral on Maduro’s assault on democracy and his government’s involvement in drug trafficking.

U.S. foreign policy should be to support Venezuelans who want mutually beneficial ties with Washington, not to conduct business as usual with a hostile and unpopular regime.

Normal diplomatic ties, including an accredited U.S ambassador, should be reserved for a Venezuelan government that welcomes constructive ties with the United States, respects our common values and protects our mutual security.

Roger F. Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (2001-05), is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank. Readers may write him at AEI, 1150 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.