Savvy diplomacy needs to follow sanctions on Venezuela vice president

March 1, 2017

Savvy diplomacy needs to follow sanctions on Venezuela vice president

The Treasury Department’s sanctions on the Venezuelan vice president for playing a major role in international drug trafficking was an overdue step to ratchet up pressure on the Venezuelan regime and signal that top officials will suffer consequences if they continue to engage in massive corruption, abuse human rights and dismantle democracy.  In and of itself, the sanctions will not bring about a democratic transition. That will require the Venezuelan opposition to remobilize its followers, and U.S. diplomatic efforts to marshal countries in the region to isolate the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela should rank among the Trump administration’s highest foreign policy priorities. The Maduro government, doubling down on the disastrous economic policies imposed by the late President Hugo Chavez, has produced a social cataclysm. The country with the world’s highest oil reserves suffers from hyperinflation, a nearly 20 percent economic contraction last year and shortages of food and medicine. The risks of a public uprising are high, threatening Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean with a refugee crisis. Worse still, Maduro has seasoned his economic misrule with political repression, holding scores of political prisoners and stripping the nation's legislative body of its authority.

In President Obama’s final year, the administration backed the opposition’s campaign to hold a presidential recall referendum, supported a Vatican-led dialogue between Maduro and the opposition, and mobilized regional governments to condemn the Venezuelan regime. The Treasury Department also built the case for sanctioning Vice President Tareck El Aissami, though the State Department withheld authorization for fear of disrupting the floundering Vatican mediation and imperiling the release of an American citizen imprisoned on manufactured charges in Caracas.
Maduro had hoped Donald Trump’s election would reduce U.S. pressure. Trump and his team have evinced little interest in human rights and democratic norms overseas, and the president is hardly a persuasive spokesman for press freedom or judicial independence.  But the sanctions on El Aissami, followed by Trump's Oval Office meeting with the wife of political prisoner Leopold Lopez, has put an end to any illusions about better relations.    

The blocking of El Aissami's properties and freezing of his assets in the United States could serve as a useful first move in pressuring the Venezuelan regime to reach a deal with the opposition. Thus far, the dialogue has only served to further entrench Maduro in power, even as his approval rating has plummeted to about 20 percent. He has used the talks as a delaying tactic to defuse domestic protest and hold the international community at bay. The government has faced few consequences for continuing to hold prominent political prisoners and cancelling a presidential recall referendum that polls showed Maduro was certain to lose in a landslide. 

To help the Venezuelan people end their national nightmare, the Trump administration should immediately follow its action against El Aissami with three additional steps.

First, it should insist that any political transition be peaceful and constitutional. American officials must heed the lessons of the short-lived coup in 2002, when Bush administration support for Chavez’s ouster did lasting damage to the U.S. standing in the region. Legitimate political outcomes include reviving the presidential recall referendum process or moving up next year's scheduled presidential elections to this year.

Second, the United States should defend the opposition’s right to peaceful protests by warning Venezuelan authorities that anyone who orders or participates in violence against demonstrators will be held accountable by the international community.

Finally, the administration should continue the Obama administration efforts to build support at the Organization of American States to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which offers tools to defend democracy, including Venezuela’s potential suspension from the body. Maduro craves international approval. In December, after Mercosur, a regional customs union, expelled Venezuela, his foreign minister suffered physical injuries when she sought to overpower security guards excluding her from a Mercosur summit.

Invoking the Charter will not be easy. Most countries have balked at discussing the document as long as the dialogue continues and enjoys the backing of the Vatican, and countries in the Americas remain disinclined to weigh in on the internal affairs of their neighbors. Venezuela has also silenced many of Caribbean countries with its provision of petroleum at discounted prices. The Trump administration, moreover, has demonstrated that diplomacy is not its forte, and its row with Mexico alienated governments in Latin America. Nevertheless, building a regional coalition is essential, or the sanctioning of a powerful official will end up a mere footnote in the story of Venezuela’s catastrophic collapse.

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