First the U.S. levelled sanctions against Venezuela’s vice president for alleged drug trafficking. Then there was U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and his subsequent tweet that Venezuela should release him. Next came the call to President Mauricio Macri of Argentina in which Trump stressed Macri’s leadership in the region and invited him to the White House.
“You connect the dots on those things and you come up with a picture,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas told Foreign Policy. That picture is one of a shift in U.S. policy toward a harder line against Venezuela. Could it be that the Venezuelan president is one strongman Trump doesn’t like?
Perhaps. Maduro is not just any strongman. He’s head of a country often lumped with Cuba, public enemy #1 of a faction of the Republican Party.
“Venezuela and Cuba are often spoken about together, especially in Congress,” Harold Trinkunas, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told FP. “There are supporters of the president who care deeply about this.”
There are also shifting power dynamics in the region. With new governments in Brazil and Argentina, Venezuela does not have the support it once did from its neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Andean country is grappling with a host of problems that threaten to spill over its borders. The economy is crumbling, drug trafficking and corruption are rampant, and people don’t have access to medical care or enough food. On Dec. 16, Venezuela was suspended from South America’s regional economic group, Mercosur, for failure to comply with human rights standards.
With Venezuela threatening regional stability, its neighbors may welcome U.S. help on reining in the country, argued Trinkunas. “The moment is more ripe than in previous years” to step up pressure on Venezuela, he said.
Still, it may be premature to declare a policy shift by the Trump administration. The Obama administration had already laid the groundwork for the sanctions. And the meeting with Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, was facilitated by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Farnsworth told FP. Rubio has long called for the U.S. to take a tougher stance against the Maduro regime.
For his part, Maduro seems to be seeking friendly relations with the Trump administration. He has said he couldn’t see how Trump could be worse than his predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama. And even after the sanctions against his vice president, on Wednesday, Maduro said he doesn’t want problems with Trump.
One day later, Venezuela’s highest court upheld Lopez’s 14-year prison sentence.
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