The Cable

Are Fresh U.S. Sanctions the Start of a Tougher Venezuela Policy From Trump?

The sanctions had their origins in the Obama era, but could they signify a policy change in the time of Trump?

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New U.S. sanctions on Venezuela are more about fighting drug trafficking than pressuring the regime of Nicolás Maduro, and it’s still unclear if the Trump administration will take a harder line on Caracas than the Obama administration did, as many in Venezuela were hoping.

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, and the man believed to be his “primary frontman,” Samark Lopez. They were sanctioned under the Kingpin Act for alleged drug trafficking. (El Aissami may also be involved in doling out passports to people in the Middle East with terrorist links.)

“This action demonstrates the president’s seriousness about fighting the scourge of drugs in the United States,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Tuesday.

El Aissami called the sanctions “imperialist aggression” and Maduro demanded a public apology, but Caracas’ response has been more muted many expected.

The sanctions were in the works for a long time, Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, told Foreign Policy. “This clearly had its genesis a long while ago in the Obama administration,” he said, noting that the Treasury Department would not have been able to get to the level of detail that the accusations leveled against El Aissami contain in three weeks.

But they hadn’t been implemented while peace talks were ongoing between Maduro’s government and the political opposition. Now that those talks appear to have floundered, proponents of using sanctions inside the State Department, Congress, and other agencies are pressing their case, said Harold Trinkunas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Still, it’s not clear if it amounts to a meaningful shift in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Some prominent opposition leaders have complained that the Obama administration was not tough enough on Maduro, and were hoping for a harder line from President Donald Trump.

One reason for the hesitancy to sanction Venezuelan officials in the past is because it plays into the country’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Another reason, said Trinkunas, is that Maduro surrounds himself with people “who have been sanctioned or accused of being involved in illicit activities” because they have the most to lose if he leaves office, and so will work harder to keep him in power.

But the new round of sanctions might strike the right balance to earn support from the Venezuelan people and opposition, without provoking a rally-around-the-flag effect. Farnsworth said that identifying “individuals in Venezuela who have engaged in these types of activities and [can] be sanctioned in a way that’s appropriate” could allow the United States to deal with Caracas in a way that garners sympathy from Venezuelans and others in the region.

At any event, Maduro’s knee-jerk anti-Americanism, like that of former president Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro before him, is getting old as Venezuela’s economy spirals into free fall and violence keeps rising.

Anti-imperialist “rhetoric has gone stale in Venezuela around people who don’t have enough to eat,” Farnsworth said.

Photo credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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