When it Comes to Venezuela, Trump Follows in Obama Footsteps

But some diplomats are frustrated by the policy paralysis.

trump zilch ven

Protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro are entering their third month. Over 60 people have been killed in faceoffs between protesters and security forces, at least 1,000 have been jailed, and 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds over the past year.

A Wednesday meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of American States failed to produce a single statement on the crisis. The meeting is the latest–and perhaps most high-profile–example of how divided the Americas are in dealing with the rapidly escalating events in Venezuela.

And it looks unlikely that the Donald Trump White House will chart a new course.

The Trump White House is largely following the policies put in place by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, Mark Feierstein, former senior director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council said at a Thursday event in Washington, D.C. “I’m not accustomed to saying nice things about the Trump administration,” he said, but “their policy is on the right track. I think in many cases they’re building on what we did in the Obama administration,” he said, pointing in particular to sanctions put on Venezuelan officials by the Obama and Trump administrations.

One senior diplomat from the region told Foreign Policy that there is a very good level of coordination between the United States and other countries in the region, although staffing shortages and Obama-era holdovers mean that it’s perhaps too early to know the Trump White House’s position on Venezuela. “No one really knows what to do on Venezuela,” the diplomat said.

Others, however, are more frustrated. Obama was working toward normalizing relations with Cuba, which limited his administration’s ability to pressure countries with important votes in the Organization of American States on other issues. But since the Trump White House isn’t focused on improving relations with Cuba, some countries had hoped the new administration would do more to address the Venezuela situation.

Many Venezuelans are looking expectantly to the Organization of American States for some statement or action, Caracas Chronicles executive editor Francisco Toro said at the same Thursday event. But in order for the Organization of American States to put out a declaration on the situation in Venezuela–whether on the release of political prisoners or calls to protect the constitution–it needs at least 23 of its member states to vote yes.

But every vote is equal, and 14 of them are held by Caribbean countries, many of which are unwilling or hesitant to turn against the Maduro regime. In some cases, this is because they are members of the Venezuelan-Caribbean oil alliance Petrocaribe and benefit from subsidies. In other cases, it’s because they are loyal out of memory of Hugo Chavez, who paid for public works, airports, and infrastructure in Caribbean countries, as Eric Farnsworth of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas explained to FP.

Another diplomat from the region told FP that those countries that want action taken on Venezuela had expected the Trump administration to try to flip the Caribbean countries’ votes.

Though some had expected the United States to try to exert more influence over Caribbean states, they hadn’t seen that, and didn’t expect to at Wednesday’s meeting, the diplomat said ahead of the ministerial.

The diplomat understood that trying to improve relations with Cuba restricted the Obama administration’s actions. But “with the Trump administration, we were hoping we could get more influence in the region, especially Caricom. We are not seeing that at the OAS level.”

And while there’s bilateral engagement between Washington and individual states, the United States would ultimately need to find some way to wean those countries off Venezuelan oil and money, Moisés Rendon of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.

Given the limited attention Venezuela and the Caribbean got in Rex Tillerson’s address to the State Department in early May and staffing shortages in the new administration, that doesn’t seem to be an undertaking team Trump is planning on managing any time soon.

The diplomat reiterated after the meeting that, “we don’t see the engagement that we would like to see from the U.S.”

A declaration from the Organization of American States wouldn’t immediately change the situation in Venezuela, but it could make clear that the country’s international standing is threatened.

“We lost. Not having a declaration, not having anything — it’s not a good position,” the frustrated regional diplomat said, pointing out that the situation on the ground is growing worse by the day.

“But the votes are facts,” the diplomat said. “This is what we have for now.”

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin