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U.S. President Donald Trump has embraced a surprisingly hard line toward the Venezuelan government. On February 14, the United States sanctioned the recently appointed Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and his close associate, Samark José López Bello, for suspected involvement in drug trafficking. The following day, Trump met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, and tweeted shortly afterward that López should be “out of prison immediately.” Undeterred by the Venezuelan government’s ban on broadcasts by CNN’s Spanish language channel two days later, a U.S. State Department statement expressed “dismay and concern” about the more than 100 political prisoners held by the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and called for “respect for the rule of law, the freedom of the press . . . and the restoration of a democratic process that reflects the will of the Venezuelan people.” Moreover, Trump noted his concerns about Venezuela’s worsening human rights situation during phone calls with Presidents Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, and Pedro Pablo Kuczysnki of Peru.
Trump’s condemnation of the Maduro regime comes at a time when Venezuela has fallen into an economic and humanitarian crisis, and at the same time that it has, as Freedom House put it, “fully shed its democratic façade.” Although opposition parties won control of the Venezuelan National Assembly in December 2015 and promised a presidential recall referendum, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council indefinitely suspended the vote in October 2016. Two months later, ongoing Vatican-led talks between the Maduro regime and the opposition broke down over the regime’s refusal to make certain concessions such as releasing political prisoners. Regional elections were also postponed last year and, if current trends continue, it is believed the presidential elections, scheduled for 2018, will be too.
Neither can the Venezuelan opposition count on judicial protection. At the beginning of this year, the country’s Supreme Court, which is stacked with government loyalists, invalidated a National Assembly resolution to check Maduro’s power. Its decision essentially enabled the president to rule by decree.
Trump appears to sympathize with the Venezuelan opposition and its human rights predicament. But his desire to stem illicit drug flows into the United States gives him an added incentive to maintain an interest in Venezuela. Indeed, he issued an executive order in February to, “identify, interdict, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations”—including drug cartels—“through the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of members of such organizations.” Achieving these goals with respect to Venezuela, however, requires a Venezuelan government committed to the same objective. It is highly doubtful that the current regime is, given that many high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including top military officers, are apparently involved in the global illicit drug trade.
Trump thus finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to pressure Venezuela to commit to holding free and fair elections, even though Venezuelan officials, reluctant to relinquish the immunity their positions offer, will likely put up stiff, or even violent, resistance to anything that challenges their hold on power.
Venezuela has become a major route for the transit of cocaine into the United States because of its porous 1,370-mile border with Colombia, a corrupt government, and weak institutions. The country’s unwillingness to cooperate with the United States on counter-narcotics dates back to 2005, when Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, suspended Venezuelan collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing its agents of spying on the Venezuelan government.
Although Washington wasn’t aware at the time, Chavez may have been trying to cover up the involvement of high-ranking Venezuelan officials in drug trafficking. That came to light in March 2008 when the Colombian military raided a camp in Ecuador belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recovered hordes of sensitive electronic correspondence and documents. These so-called FARC files, which later became publicly available, revealed close ties between the Chávez regime and the guerilla group. More specifically, General Hugo Carvajal, head of Venezuela’s military intelligence, allegedly aided the FARC in drug and weapons trafficking, as did General Henry Rangel and then-Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) consequently froze these three officials’ U.S. assets.
But these sanctions appear to have had little, if any, effect. Rangel went on to serve briefly as Venezuela’s defense minister and is now the governor of Trujillo state. Rodríguez Chacín, who managed the Chávez regime’s relationship with the FARC, is currently the governor of Guárico state. Carvajal, who was detained in 2014 by Aruban authorities on U.S. request, was later released because he had immunity—he was the consul to Aruba at the time.
In subsequent years, OFAC enacted sanctions against a number of other high-ranking officials. And there have been more revelations since Leamsy Salazar, the former head of President Chávez’s security detail, fled to the United States in January 2015 to work with federal prosecutors in investigating longtime ties between the Venezuelan government and drug syndicates. Among the individuals Salazar has implicated is Diosdado Cabello, a former National Assembly president from Venezuela’s ruling political party and a former military officer who allegedly heads a drug cartel—the Cartel of the Suns—primarily consisting of current and former military officers. Moreover, the United States has uncovered links between drug traffickers and Maduro’s cabinet and family members.
On August 1, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York unsealed a cocaine trafficking indictment against two former Venezuelan counternarcotics officials—General Néstor Luis Reverol and Edylberto José Molina, then the Venezuelan military attaché to Germany. Molina has since reportedly returned to Venezuela. And Maduro has appointed Reverol as Venezuela’s interior minister, a position that oversees the country’s police forces. Three months later, a New York City federal jury convicted two nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores of conspiring to transport 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. The two men are currently awaiting sentencing, while Maduro has blasted their convictions as “U.S. imperialism.”
El Aissami, who was known to be the subject of a U.S. investigation when he was appointed vice president in January, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to be accused of drug trafficking so far. According to OFAC, El Aissami, in his previous positions as interior minister (2008–12) and as governor of Aragua state (2012–17), allegedly oversaw, or partially owned, narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms that were destined for the United States.
And yet, El Aissami has assumed a broad range of powers, including direct budgetary control over all ministries and decision-making authority over sales and income tax rates. The Economist Intelligence Unit has consequently speculated that El Aissami has become Maduro’s preferred successor if the president, who faces an 80 percent disapproval rating, chooses not to contest presidential elections scheduled for next year. But there remains the question of whether these elections will be free and fair, or whether they will even be held, in the first place.
At this point, it seems unlikely that elections will happen. Maduro’s administration has stacked the government’s highest ranks with individuals who have much to lose in any political transition favoring the opposition. Consider the situation of El Aissami and Reverol, the two most powerful people in Venezuela after Maduro, who are in positions where a transition could lead to their eventual prosecution and imprisonment. Another possibility—a military coup—also seems unlikely since Maduro has extensively incorporated the military, itself compromised of groups such as the Cartel of the Suns, into the government. The military’s responsibility for managing Venezuela’s food supply has resulted in myriad opportunities for black market profiteering, as well as plenty of incentives for resisting a compromise with the opposition and cracking down on a popular uprising. Indeed, one-third of Maduro’s cabinet ministers are active duty or retired military officers, while 12 of Venezuela’s 23 governors are former military officers.
U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan leaders for drug trafficking have thus failed to convince the Maduro regime to change its behavior. The takeaway for the Trump administration is not to underestimate the chavista government’s determination to survive and the power that high-ranking government officials have at their disposal to shield their regime, regardless of foreign condemnation.
The Trump administration, its Latin American allies, and the Venezuelan opposition now face the challenge of figuring out how to push for a peaceful transition of power. One way is to drive a wedge between the hardline members of the Venezuelan government and the moderates who do not want their country to become a regional or global pariah. In this regard, last week’s meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Venezuela may provide an opening.
Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the OAS, recently charged the Venezuelan government with violating the organization’s Inter–American Democratic Charter. He called on the OAS to suspend Venezuela’s membership unless it held free and fair elections immediately. But a contentious March 28 OAS meeting ended with only a vague statement, backed by 20 of the 34 OAS members, which proposed a “political solution” to the Venezuelan crisis.
What followed, however, was more promising. Three days after the OAS statement, the Venezuelan Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its power. But the court revised its ruling in the wake of criticism from fellow Latin American governments and Venezuela's own attorney general, who is perceived to be a Maduro loyalist. Her resistance suggested divisions within the Maduro regime.
Shortly thereafter, the OAS’s Permanent Council passed a tougher resolution calling upon the Maduro regime to safeguard the separation of powers. The OAS also promised to “stand ready to support measures to return to democratic order” and “undertake as necessary further diplomatic initiatives to foster the restoration of the democratic institutional system.” The resolution was approved by 17 of the 34 member states, including the United States, with abstentions by only four nations: the Bahamas, Belize, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. But the vote was still six nations short of the two-thirds majority required for a member’s suspension from the OAS.
The United States and its allies will likely have trouble convincing a number of Caribbean nations to vote against Venezuela, from which those nations receive subsidized oil shipments. But as the political commentator Andrés Oppenheimer has written, the Trump administration might still convince these and other OAS members to vote against Venezuela if it showed more than a temporary interest in regional affairs. It could, for example, appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and take back its threat to cut U.S. funding for the OAS. Simply put, if the prospect of an OAS suspension of Venezuela becomes real, it may create enough pressure to widen the cracks among Maduro’s loyalists, and consequently, generate enough incentive for Maduro to resume talks with the opposition and, at the very least, hold free, fair, and internationally supervised elections in 2018.
In the end, however, the Trump administration’s refusal to go it alone and its basic willingness to work multilaterally with other Latin American states to resolve the Venezuelan crisis matters. If the administration succeeds in facilitating such a solution, it will lay a firm foundation for a renewed U.S. relationship with Latin America based on common regional security and political interests. And if it does not, it will have learned who its friends are in the wake of a new regional security threat.