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U.S. Congressmember Andriano Espaillat (D-NY 13th) calls for free and fair elections in Venezuela and critiques the double standard of U.S. policy, which calls for democracy in Venezuela yet is in bed with anti-democratic right wing governments in Central America – with Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

President Trump has been threatening military intervention to overthrow the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. Here he is threatening the use of force.

DONALD TRUMP: We have troops all over the world, in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away. And the people are suffering, and they’re dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.

PAUL JAY: Severe U.S. sanctions have been adding to the deep economic crisis, making life increasingly miserable for the people. A bill, H.R. 1004, cosponsored by 47 members of the House, calls for prohibiting unauthorized military actions in Venezuela. One of the cosponsors joins us today, U.S. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who represents New York’s 13th Congressional District. Thanks very much for joining us, Representative.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Thank you, Paul. Thank you so much for inviting me.

PAUL JAY: So, why did–You are a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Several members of that committee, and as I say, 47 others, including, I think, at least one Republican, have signed on to H.R. 1004. Why did you feel it necessary to have such a bill?

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: First and foremost, there is a longstanding history in our nation of military interventions that have gone pretty bad, in addition to the fact that we are still trying to continue being the policeman of the world. Which is not the way to go. It’s a new world. It’s a new world. Technology has united countries from different continents, different scenarios, different dynamic right now. And I feel that pushing the military intervention model is really part of the past.

In addition to that, Venezuela is in very deep crisis. There’s hunger and famine going on there. There’s a big migration out of Venezuela to different countries, including Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other neighboring countries. And to go through the military route, I think it will further exacerbate the situation and create a deeper crisis without giving us any guarantees that democracy will be restored there.

PAUL JAY: It’s a complicated situation in Venezuela, but let’s sort of parse it out. First of all, there seems to be a division in the Democratic Party about the attitude towards what to do with Venezuela; the sort of leadership Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mendoza, sort of the people that are normally the spokespeople for the Democratic Party on foreign policy seem to be fully supporting the Trump administration’s threats, supporting the sanctions. But the people that signed on to 1004, and the chair of your committee, Eliot Engel, has said not to just simply, one, endorse Guaido. This is the man that Trump is saying–the president of the National Assembly–should become the president. And in fact, not become the president; they’re declaring he is the president. Engel came out and said, well, the Venezuelan people in a fair election should decide who should be the president. Whereas Pelosi and Schumer seem to be fully on board with people like Mike Pompeo, Elliott Abrams, even Vice President Pence. What do you make of this division towards these issues?

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Oh, more than a division, I think. The Democratic Party is a very diverse party, and we often have different views. It doesn’t mean that we are deeply divided as a caucus. I think that we have different points of view about Venezuela. I certainly am concerned about the situation in Venezuela and about the Maduro regime, but I don’t think that we should militarily intervene. I don’t think we should occupy Venezuela. I think that we should adhere to a diplomatic avenues that already have been, obviously, proposed by folks like the Vatican, Mexico, and Uruguay, who are proposing that we sit down. And certainly the people of Venezuela should have open and transparent elections where they decide their own leadership and their own destiny. I don’t think it should be imposed through a barrel of a gun.

PAUL JAY: The Venezuelan sort of game plan is being led by Elliott Abrams, who was in on bringing us the Iraq War, Iran-Contra, and a lot of other conspiracies and illegal activities in Latin America. The fact that this policy represents what you called in the beginning of the interview this kind of old-style approach to Latin America, what does this have to do with restoring democracy? None of these policies ever led to democracy.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Well, Iran-Contra. Who’s controlling government in Nicaragua? The Sandinistas. Up until the recent election, who was controlling government in El Salvador? So obviously his efforts were not very successful in getting who he felt maybe should be at the helm of government. But I think that more importantly is his past, the baggage he brings to the table having been engaged in illegal activities that led to his conviction and subsequent harm by President Bush. I think he’s not–just recently this week we heard from Madeleine Albright, who came before the. Foreign Affairs Committee. She said herself that she would have never appointed him. She had never recommended someone of that stature to play such a critical role in this impasse with Venezuela.

So clearly his past continues to haunt him. And I think he’s absolutely the wrong person at the wrong time to be involved in the Venezuelan crisis.

PAUL JAY: And what is your attitude towards the recognition of Guaido? As I said, Eliot Engel has said it should be the Venezuelan people who decide who the next president is, not the United States. But again, a large section of the Democratic Party foreign policy leadership has supported this recognition of Guaido.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: I agree with Chairman Engel. I believe that the sovereign people of Venezuela should decide who the president is. I believe they should have elections again. But I think it should come through multinational negotiations that will ensure a transparent electoral process that will guarantee the sovereignty of the nation and the confidence of the Venezuelan people, who are going through hell right now. And I sympathize with the Venezuelan people, and I think that they should have their day at the ballot box. But not through the barrel of a gun.

PAUL JAY: The 2018 elections that elected Maduro, while there’s a lot of dispute about the validity of those elections, and some of the progressive critics within Venezuela critique much of how those elections were conducted, but those people also say that the opposition, to a large extent, simply refused to participate. And now they’re trying to have it both ways; that they don’t participate–in fact, there was an opposition candidate they could have rallied around. And instead of rallying around the opposition candidate, and many people thought they might have won, they boycotted. And so as disputed as those elections are, there seems to be a lot of blame on all sides, not just the government side.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: There’s a lot of finger pointing going on. But clearly that election was troublesome. The opposition feels that that candidate was not a good candidate, first of all. And even the Chavistas are–the hardcore Chavistas–have some deep concerns with Maduro and the way he’s running the government in Venezuela. So this is a right versus left, necessarily a right versus left debate. This is a debate about the well being of the Venezuelan people are hungry right now, that are riddled with crime in the streets, that are really the worst time, perhaps, in the entire history. And I think that they’re entitled to new elections.

PAUL JAY: The objective, stated objective, of the sanctions, of this U.S. government policy towards Venezuela, is supposed to be about democracy. Does anyone believe that–Bernie Sanders made the point, in his statement on Venezuela, if they’re so concerned about democracy, when’s the last time they were concerned about the election results in Saudi Arabia? Because there weren’t any, because there weren’t any elections in Saudi Arabia. In the whole Latin American policy–I mean, everyone knows, when it comes to Latin America and many other places in the world, democracy and freedom is a language to cover up very narrow, very banal American commercial interests. I mean, it’s not an accident that Mike Pompeo, who’s very closely associated with the Koch brothers–and so is Vice President Pence, for that matter–the Koch brothers have a big dispute with Venezuela. They had a fertilizer company that was expropriated by Chavez. They have a great need for the heavy crude for their refinery in Texas, and they’d love to get their hands on Venezuelan crude.

Isn’t this rather problematic that you have these severe sanctions on Venezuela, but nothing towards a country like Saudi Arabia? And it makes everybody wonder, you know–and then why do, as I say, leading Democrats buy into this? Because Republicans have a clear, long, overt history–like in Iraq they were going, you know, supposedly was supposed to be about democracy in Iraq. And clearly that was about oil. I mean, shouldn’t people be a little more circumspect about this?

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Well, I agree with Bernie that we kind of have a double standard. A dictatorship of the right is just as bad as a dictatorship of the left. Very often this is so subjective, right? That folks in government here at the White House are looking at it from a different optic than perhaps you and I would look at it. And so of course they will turn their heads with regards to Saudi Arabia and the campaign in Yemen, for example, and really hone in on Venezuela. But there’s clearly–the Venezuelan people are suffering, and they need some help. I think we should provide them with Temporary Protected Status, those that need to flee the country. But we need to have, first and foremost, a transparent and reliable election; something that we haven’t been able to do too well even here in the United States recently.

So this is a challenge that must include the international community, including the United Nations, and other governments that already are showing an interest in the dialogue and diplomacy efforts, and must come through to ensure that there’s no oppression. The opposition, for example–or the government, as the White House likes to call them–wants to be armed. Are we heading into civil war that will further drive this crisis to a deeper status of suffering for the Venezuelan people? Opening the doors then, of course, for the White House or others to make the argument that we should intervene.

And so this is what we should try to avoid. Our meddling militarily should not happen. We should try diplomacy and dialogue, and try to have a free and open election for the Venezuelan people to decide for themselves who they want as the government.

PAUL JAY: There’s a potential of another big confrontation on the–both Brazilian and Colombian borders with Venezuela this weekend over aid shipments. We interviewed a Venezuelan academic. He used to be more associated with the Chavistas, but he’s now quite a critic. A guy named Edgardo Lander. He’s–as critical as he is of the Maduro government, he makes the point that the, if the United States and other foreign countries are so interested in the well being of the Venezuelans, then the first thing that needs to be done is to not have–is to lift sanctions; that the humanitarian aid at the borders is kind of a publicity stunt, and being used to provoke a confrontation. But the the billions and billions of dollars that are being held, Venezuelan gold in England, the shutting down on the ability of Venezuela to export oil, that’s exacerbating the crisis, even though much of the crisis is mismanagement and bad policy by the Maduro government. If the interest is the well being of the Venezuelan people, you don’t add on with these terribly onerous sanctions.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: You know, we can–if we feel they are bad actors in the Maduro government, if their generals are, for example, behind drug dealing, or money laundering, or even folks who have connections, as has been reported with terrorist groups, then we could always resort to the Magnitsky Act, which we have already done.

But I do believe in humanitarian aid. I think that the people of Venezuela are hurting and we must provide some–even in Caracas, for example. We all know about the long lines in the supermarkets, and the lack of medicine, and just everyday, fundamental pieces of survival that are not there right now. We must provide some type of–this can really spiral out of control, and it could be a devastating blow not just to Venezuela, but to the entire region, as well.

PAUL JAY: So I must say a couple of things. We’ve had some of our own journalists down in Venezuela just in the last couple of weeks. And while there’s no question, especially in the poorer barrios, the situation is difficult, it certainly seems to be, to some extent, being exaggerated by some of the Western press. And in some of the wealthier districts, where you get the strongest opposition protests, the stores are actually of food. Unfortunately, in the wealthier districts they can afford the food, and in the poorer districts they can’t.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Well, clearly there’s no question that there’s been a great exodus of migration.

PAUL JAY: No doubt.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: And there’s no doubt about that. And that’s come as a result of the conditions that are on the ground in Venezuela. I haven’t been on the ground in Venezuela to be able to tell you what condition the supermarkets are in in the wealthier neighborhoods, as I’m sure there are there are more food [inaudible] there are in the poor neighborhoods. But there’s no question that a significant number of people, millions of people, have fled Venezuela to other countries, and is creating a dynamic and a situation for the region, now. It’s not just confined to the borders of the country. So we must address the humanitarian aid issue.

PAUL JAY: But clearly the government, American government, is more interested in toppling Maduro than dealing with the humanitarian crisis. Thus you get Venezuelans across the board, almost, except for the far right, calling to lift sanctions. Even though they do want free and fair elections, and they do want, many of them, to get rid of Maduro, they also want the sanctions lifted. Would you support lifting these Trump sanctions?

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: It depends which ones, and who is it affecting? Certainly the people of Venezuela do not deserve to be punished any more. On the other hand, there is corruption, and there is drug dealing, and other vices going on in the Venezuelan government that must be addressed. And I think that sanctions in those directions are prudent, absolutely.

PAUL JAY: The only thing one gets back to, then, is the hypocrisy of that how many governments in Latin America should have sanctions if the issue is corruption.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: I agree. Dictatorship from the right is just as bad, if not worse, than a dictatorship from the left. So we see what’s happening in other countries in Central America. We see migration also coming from those countries as a result of internal conditions have been made worse by really bad governments. And we seem to be in bed with those governments. There is clearly a double standard, but there is no question that the people of Venezuela are suffering. They deserve help, and they also deserve to have a clear and objective and transparent election.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Congressman.

ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Thank you so much, Paul.

PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.