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