Hillary Clinton: Obama’s Venezuelan Handshake Photo-Opp — ‘We Tried’

Photograph by Orlando Parada/AFP via Getty Images

Activists prepare to throw a molotov cocktail at National Guard troopers during a protest in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on Feb. 21, 2014.

The protests that have rocked Venezuela for two weeks — killing at least 14 people — may have been avoided if the United States had been more successful in making inroads with the South American country early in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton says.

Speaking to more than 4,000 students at the University of Miami in Florida last night, the former secretary of state said that she and President Barack Obama tried in 2009 to promote a more stable democracy in Venezuela, to prevent the type of unrest taking place now. Those efforts, which included overtures to then-president Hugo Chavez, fell short, she said.

Clinton said a 2009 handshake between Obama and Chavez at the Summit of the Americas was aimed at trying to build a working relationship with Venezuela. Obama was criticized for the handshake, and efforts to work with Venezuela regressed.

“We tried. We tried to engage with President Chavez,’’ Clinton said. “Rather than it being an opening to find ways to work together, it was just a photo-opp and, unfortunately, it went backwards instead of forward.’’

Chavez died last year. Thousands of activists have taken to the streets to protest his successor, Nicolas Maduro, as the country faces shortages of basic goods, soaring inflation and rising crime. Clinton said the United States needs to become more engaged in Venezuela, despite the lack of progress in past efforts.

“Democracy doesn’t mean just an election. A democracy means a free press, protecting the rights of opponents, protecting a free economy, having an independent judiciary,’’ she said. “Other than elections, there aren’t very many characteristics of a real democracy in Venezuela.’’

Clinton, a consistent front-runner in polls gauging the potential 2016 presidential race, spoke as if she was still a member of the Obama’s Cabinet, said Eliot Tang-Smith, a recent graduate of the University of Miami.

In Clinton’s 23-minute speech, and a question-and-answer session that followed, Clinton touched on topics ranging from women’s rights and inequality to education. She defended the Affordable Care Act and praised Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a law that would have allowed Arizona businesses to refuse services to gay people.

“Thankfully, the governor of Arizona has vetoed the discriminatory legislation that was passed, recognizing that inclusive leadership is really what the 21st century is all about,’’ she said of the Republican governor’s veto last night.

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