- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Obama administration is “prepared” to level sanctions against Venezuela but hopes to avoid such a move that would only worsen the South American nation’s faltering economy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday.

Lawmakers from both parties in recent days call for a reduction of U.S. oil purchases from Venezuela and for sanctioning members of the government of leftist President Nicolas Maduro after clashes with opposition protesters in Caracas.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, pressed Mr. Kerry Wednesday during a State Department budget hearing.

“We are prepared” if need be to invoke the charter of the Organization of American States and seriously consider sanctions, Mr. Kerry said.

He added, however, that the Venezuelan economy “is fragile enough right now” — a reality that has given the administration pause.

Mr. Kerry said the administration hopes to convince other nations in region, along with the OAS, to “pressure” Mr. Maduro away from using force against peaceful protesters and to begin a “meaningful dialogue with the opposition.” 

But he acknowledged the strategy simply may not be enough. So far, Mr. Kerry said, Venezuela’s neighbors are “not listening to us.”

His remarks come in the wake of a diplomatic clash between Maduro government and Panama, which last week proposed that the OAS call a meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela.

Mr. Maduro responded Friday by cutting all diplomatic relations and bilateral economic ties with Panama, lambasting Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, calling him a “lackey” to foreign interests bent on creating conditions for intervening in Venezuela.

Mr. Kerry lamented on Wednesday that the Maduro government has taken a similar posture toward the United States, often hurling biting public insults at Washington — a practice former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was famous for before his death from cancer last year.

It’s a tactic, said Mr. Kerry, that Mr. Chavez used to distract Venezuelans from economic problems at home.

“We’ve become an excuse,” Mr. Kerry said. 

Mr. Kerry added that the Obama administration shares the same concerns as many Venezuelans. “We want fair distribution of the resources. We want opportunity, economic opportunity. We want to provide the health care and education, all the things that their young people are screaming for,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” he added, the Maduro government has “been more prone to simply want to use us as a political card in their domestic efforts. And I think that’s come home to roost, frankly, now.”