Ukraine. Russia. Venezuela. Iran. Syria. Headlines for us, but all in a day’s work for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been in the Beltway circle of power players dealing with U.S. foreign policy.
Menendez, D-N.J., spoke to Fox News Latino on Friday about some of the raging conflicts around the globe, and the possible ramifications on the United States, and those nations’ neighboring regions
FNL: Senator, we are deluged with news and debates about Russia and its intervention in Ukraine, and the violence that erupted there. From your position as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and as someone who is involved in high-level meetings about the unstable situation there, what do you think remains misunderstood or underestimated about the crisis?
RM: My observation about what has not been gleaned yet is that what happens, how we deal with Ukraine, has consequences beyond Ukraine. In the first instance, it is about Ukraine. But China is watching us and may be saying “The United States and West are not going to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I can do what I want in the South China Sea, and South Korea. I’ve got the tougher, bigger army. I’ll be condemned, but that’s it. [Ultimately] I’ll have what I want."
In North Korea, [leader] Kim Jong-un can look at how the West handles Ukraine and Russia and think “I can just go ahead with my nuclear program.” The Iranians, who are in the midst of negotiating, also watch. In Syria, we say that yes, diplomacy is important and desirable. But you have to negotiate from strength. People like Putin only understand strength.
FNL: Last year, the Syrian government’s chemical attack on its own people drew outrage, and calls for an immediate international response. It dominated the international spotlight for days, there was a sense of urgency in Congress, in the White House. But news about Syria has faded from the spotlight. At the time, many political leaders said what you’re saying now, that failure to act in a forceful way against the regime would send a message worldwide to other rogue nations, embolden them to disregard human rights.
RM: The only reason we got Syrian President Bashar Assad to agree to remove chemical weapons was because our [Senate] committee gave the President permission for use of force.
It’s only because of the threat of use of force that Assad decided to do away with the chemical weapons. But Assad’s government hasn’t stopped the slaughter.
Crimea, for Putin, is the most strategic of the things he wants to accomplish. Its naval base gives access to Ukraine. People say Putin is crazy – he’s not crazy, he’s crazy like a fox.
[He’s counting] the world will say “Go ahead, you can keep Crimea,” which is what he did in Georgia.
FNL: While chaos reigns in Ukraine, there is also a crisis much closer to us, in Venezuela. There, too, people are protesting against the government and many have died. But many Venezuelans say not nearly as much as attention has been paid to the unrest there as what Russia and Ukraine have received. Is there a reason for global attention to Venezuela, are there global ramifications?
RM: It would be harder to make the argument that what is happening in Venezuela has global impact. Now, on a regional scale, it’s big, it’s very important. It’s in the heart of Latin America.
[Hugo] Chávez and then [Nicolás] Maduro have given so much of Venezuela’s oil to Cuba and the Caribbean, Central America and others.
If Venezuela collapses, it will create a wave of collapses in all of these smaller countries. They’ve become dependent on free, or very cheap, oil, on very long-term extended credit, or critical energy that they badly need.
A collapse in Venezuela can have consequences for what happens to the negotiations between guerrillas from [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] FARC and the Colombian government’s efforts to negotiate with them.
In the absence of stronger Venezuelan state, they [FARC] have a stronger sanctuary there. So what happens in Venezuela has an important regional impact.
FNL: So it’s no less important, it’s just that the strife in Venezuela, right now at least, is of more importance to one part of the world.
RM: It’s also the world dynamic that everyone is focused on Ukraine because one country has invaded another. The broader nature of Ukraine and Russia creates more intensity [in world attention].
The similarities are the unhappiness over individual rights and freedoms, the human rights and democracy issues.
In Venezuela, there is a country that is so rich in oil, but has an inflation rate that is more than 50 percent, and its GDP has grown by only one percentage point, the lowest in Latin America. People can’t find basic items on their store shelves.
FNL: When faced with government actions such as those of Russia, Ukraine under the ousted president, and Venezuela, one of the tools that many groups and lawmakers call for are economic sanctions, besides other actions. In the case of Ukraine and Venezuela, we’ve heard more about sanctions against government officials who are deemed to have been key players in violent treatment of protesters. We’ve heard some lawmakers suggest things such as freezing assets of those officials, denying them travel visas. Why limited sanctions, reduced to personalities, instead of sanctions imposed on a country or an entire regime?
RM: [Broad sanctions] create bigger consequences for a country. It depends on the goal, too.
The Venezuelan people are already facing severe economic consequences, they’re already suffering tremendously. Sometimes you do the broader sanctions to get a populace to rise and create changes in a country.
In Venezuela, the people already are suffering economically. So we should target the people [officials] who still have money, who have assets, who would feel the consequences of supporting Maduro – who would realize that continuing to support him would cost them.
FNL: What is your view of other Latin American nations with regard to what is happening in Venezuela?
RM: The Organization of American States, the OAS, has been absolutely silent and not engaged. Very few Latin American countries have spoken out. Colombia did, a little bit, and Chile too. For the most part, though, they have said nothing.
As for Russia, we need the Europeans to be far more engaged.
FNL: Why the silence from Latin America, in your opinion?
RM: For some of them, Venezuela is very important economically. Others have a historical, non-interventionist philosophy. That’s very true among Latin Americans in general – the view that you don’t intervene “en los asuntos de otros.”