- - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Much of the recent debate on whether to impose targeted sanctions on Venezuela has focused on the wishes of the various groups opposed to the regime of President Nicolas Maduro. Some argue this discussion is simply a delaying tactic — an excuse by the administration to do nothing. Others press that inaction on Venezuela reflects indifference toward developments in the Western Hemisphere or, worse yet, the bias of some policymakers in favor of socialist governments and policies in the region.

What has been missing in this political tug of war? An elaboration of U.S. national security interests at stake and how these are advanced by imposing strong punitive measures without any further delay.

Evidence has been mounting for years of threats posed to the United States and our democratic allies by the Caracas regime.

Turning first to Venezuela’s role as a major drug-transit country, the latest State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report lists Venezuela as “a significant direct source” of or transit point for illicit drugs “significantly affecting” the United States. It further added that Venezuela “failed demonstrably” in countering this problem and in complying with its obligations under international agreements.

A 2009 report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office highlighted this collusion and estimated a more than fourfold increase between 2004 and 2007 of cocaine traffic through Venezuela en route to the United States and Europe. Various U.S. agencies have cited the involvement of members of the special narcotics units of the Venezuelan National Guard, which reported to President Hugo Chavez, since deceased, and the Federal Investigative Police in drug trafficking or in facilitating such criminal activity.

Cases such as that of Venezuelan Gen. Henry Rangel Silva also speak volumes about the extent of military and government involvement in the illegal drug trade. In 2008, the Treasury Department declared Gen. Rangel Silva a “Specially Designated National” for his role in helping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, smuggle cocaine into Venezuela — cocaine later distributed in the United States. Chavez would later promote Gen. Rangel Silva to defense minister. Sanctioned along with Gen. Rangel Silva were a former minister of the interior and justice, and the director of the Military Intelligence Directorate. Since then, the number of Venezuelan officials blacklisted by the United States for ties to drugs and terrorism has increased exponentially.

Other threats to U.S. national security interests posed by the Chavez-Maduro apparatus include what Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau termed the “axis of unity” between Iran and Venezuela. The Iran-Venezuela axis is punctuated by scores of agreements on everything from educational and scientific cooperation to agriculture, banking and finance, and military cooperation. This is a key component of the Bolivarian movement’s foreign policy that facilities Iranian adventurism in the Americas.

An April 2010 Pentagon report to Congress stated the Qods Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, “have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” The Qods Force spearheads Iran’s global terrorist efforts, and the United States has cited its officers for aiding Iran’s missile and nuclear proliferation.

In early 2013 (and, previously, in 2011), the U.S. sanctioned Venezuelan Military Industry Co. under the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. Based on the requirements in the law, this means there was “credible information” that the Venezuelan state-owned entity had “transferred to, or acquired from” Iran, North Korea or Syria equipment and technology relating to advanced conventional weapons, missiles or weapons of mass destruction programs.

A few months later, the Treasury Department designated a Venezuelan-based subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran as a proliferator, having provided or attempted to provide “financial services to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.”

This is not an exhaustive accounting of the threats posed by the Caracas regime, but one thing is clear: The piecemeal approach to countering it has failed, and waiting to take further action only magnifies the dangers.

Owing to conditions created in no small measure by efforts of pro-democracy Venezuelans, the United States can deal a potentially devastating blow to the Chavez-Maduro axis. The House of Representatives took an important step Wednesday by adopting the bipartisan sanctions bill introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican. Will the Senate follow suit? Will the administration let this opportunity go to waste and continue to distort the Venezuelan opposition’s views to excuse paralysis? For the sake of U.S. national security interests, the United States needs to act swiftly and resolutely to hold the Chavez-Maduro apparatus accountable.

Yleem D.S. Poblete is a former chief of staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and currently serves as a fellow at the Catholic University of America.

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