Less than a month after taking office as President of the United States, Donald J. Trump employed his preferred mode of communication, Twitter, to deliver a foreign policy statement of some consequence. Following a meeting with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López, Trump demanded that Venezuela allow López “out of prison immediately” (Philip, 2017).
The development took Washington by surprise, for a number of reasons. The meeting with Tintori was unscheduled. After a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence brokered by Senator Marco Rubio, Tintori was offered the chance to drop by the Oval Office, and ended up briefing Trump for 40 minutes on the crisis in Venezuela. The call for López’s release was consistent with U.S. policy under the outgoing Obama Administration, but there was no indication Trump’s presidential tweet had been drafted or planned by foreign policy aids. Moreover, Trump had shown little prior interest in human rights abuses in Venezuela, and in fact had spoken in admiring terms of strongmen elsewhere in the world, including Vladimir Putin. Perhaps most surprising of all for a president with a famously short attention span, Trump’s concern for Venezuela turned out to be lasting. Several months later, it was reported that Venezuela, together with North Korea and Iran, was one of the President’s top three foreign policy priorities (Nakamura, 2017). Trump and his Administration have since taken a number of steps to pressure the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, including expanded sanctions. Thus far, however, these actions have failed to achieve their objective of returning Venezuela to a democratic trajectory. Venezuela has grown increasingly isolated internationally, to be sure, but it has also become more authoritarian and repressive. U.S. actions have had an effect – including forcing Venezuela into a selective debt default – but have not been effective. In this regard, the Trump Administration, like the Obama Administration, has found itself frustrated in achieving its objectives in Venezuela. This article will analyze why that is the case, by examining the contours of recent United States policy toward Venezuela, as well as potential future courses of action and their consequences. The ensuing analysis suggests that, for all the diplomatic and economic leverage of U.S. government, change in Venezuela will ultimately need to come from Venezuelans themselves.
Venezuela Policy in Transition Trump’s meeting with Tintori and subsequent tweet was labeled in some reports as a major change in U.S. policy (Nakamura, 2017). In fact, it was a mark of continuity. The Administration of President Barack Obama had for some time been calling for Venezuela to release political prisoners (Reuters, 2016), and while Obama himself had not met with Tintori, his Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry had. Over its first several months in office, the Trump Administration increased the pressure on Venezuela’s government, but largely followed a playbook left in place by its predecessor. This included imposing personal sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el Aissami for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, an action that had been readied – but not executed – by the Obama national security team. It also involved a diplomatic effort to censure Venezuela at the Organization of American States (OAS) by expanding a coalition of 15 countries that Obama’s State Department had assembled in June 2016 (Seelke and Nelson, 2018). The Trump White House’s rhetoric was sharper and noisier – befitting the new President’s blunt style – but similar in substance to that of its predecessor, with calls for Venezuela to abide by its constitution, hold free and fair elections, and cease human rights violations.
However, when efforts to secure a resolution critical of Venezuela at the OAS General Assembly in June 2017 fell short, the Trump Administration began to distinguish its approach to Venezuela policy more clearly, even if the overall thrust of U.S. policy remained consistent. While the United States’ stated objective remained the promotion of democracy in Venezuela, the new Administration – frustrated by OAS dynamics and unwilling to wrestle with its own mistakes, including the decision by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to skip the General Assembly2 – shifted tactically toward unilateral policy options, with a particular focus on sanctions in lieu of multilateral diplomacy. This included expanding individual sanctions to an additional 44 Venezuelans – albeit based on a 2015 executive order issued by President Obama that authorized asset freezes and travel bans on Venezuelans who undermine democracy, violate human rights or freedom of expression and assembly, or engage in public corruption by senior government officials. On July 31, 2017, the Trump Administration added President Maduro himself to the sanctions list, one of only four heads of state in the world subject to such a measure (The American Presidency Project, 2015; Seelke and Nelson, 2018).
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