Tag Archives: Venezuela

Tillerson’s Latin America visit positive, but work in progress

Last week, U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited several countries in Latin America. The main goal of his trip was to reach a consensus on a possible oil embargo against Venezuela.

The reactions to this idea were good overall. Despite some obstacles, Tillerson’s visit launched an important and unprecedented process.

In Argentina, Tillerson and his counterpart Jorge Faurie announced that they would study the possibility of imposing oil sanctions on Venezuela in order to force the regime of Nicolas Maduro to restore the constitutional order and allow for free elections. It is important to point out that the administration of Mauricio Macri already expressed support for a U.S oil embargo of Venezuela.

The Argentinean approach could be an important addition to the coalition built by the U.S. One day after his return to Washington, Secretary Tillerson announced an American dialogue with Canada and Mexico aimed at addressing concerns regarding the impact of an oil embargo on Venezuela. The idea is how to make up for the consequences of an oil embargo that might affect the people of Venezuela as well as countries that depend on Venezuelan oil.

Furthermore, Tillerson visited Jamaica, one of those countries that depend on Venezuelan oil. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, standing alongside the U.S Secretary of State pointed out that the region is moving beyond dependence on Venezuelan oil as the country can acquire oil from other countries including the United States that “is becoming a net exporter of energy sources”.

The Jamaican PM’s statement is most crucial because it suggests that the entire group of Caribbean countries that benefit from Venezuelan oil largesse have alternatives. Last summer, Caribbean countries aborted condemnations of Venezuela at the Organization of American States (OAS), mainly because of their dependence on Venezuelan oil.

If Mexico along with Canada becomes one of the suppliers of oil to the Caribbean countries that still depend on Venezuelan oil, Mexico could play an important role in deposing a regime that has turned into a major regional threat. Mexico pledged to Tillerson that Mexico is committed to play an active role in the Venezuelan case.

Tillerson also visited Colombia and Peru. These two countries along with Mexico are on board in their opposition to the Maduro government.

It is important to point out that an oil embargo may not be enough. In reaction to Tillerson’s effort Maduro pointed out that “If the United Stated decides to sanction oil, our ships will go to other places and we will continue to sell.”

This is why it would be wise for Tillerson to also support, along with the oil embargo, a naval blockade and offer incentives for military officers to dessert Maduro. I developed this idea in a previous article.

Interestingly enough, while Tillerson was visiting the region something else no less important happened: the citizens of Ecuador voted in a referendum to approve constitutional changes that would effectively bar Rafael Correa from running for president again. Correa was a strong ally and supporter of the Venezuelan regime.

This vote was approved with an overwhelming majority of 67%. This represents a major victory for democracy in the region. The referendum was supported by the current president Lenin Moreno, who once was Correa’s vice-President. The vote in Ecuador puts an end to “Correism” and effectively deprives the regional Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) of one of its most “valuable” allies.

In other words, the region by and large is turning against the anti-democratic forces. The U.S has a unique window of opportunity. However, the U.S should not act in ways that could make it appear hypocritical or unreliable.

President Trump’s remarks threatening to cut aid to countries where drugs are produced or trafficked contradicts Tillerson’s magnificent efforts. Friendly countries such as Peru, Colombia and Mexico are among those countries.

These countries deserve the benefit of the doubt and deserve to be treated as allies. Otherwise, how can we expect them to minimize their relations with China and Russia let alone support our efforts in Venezuela? The Monroe Doctrine-issued in 1823 and invoked not without nostalgia by Tillerson in a speech delivered previous to his departure for the region- determined that the Western Hemisphere is a natural area of American influence, originally against European intervention. Tillerson reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine not against Europe but against Chinese and Russian influence.

However, the nature of Chinese and Russian presence in Latin America will depend a lot on what we do. We are not in a position to forbid countries in the region to strengthen relations with these world powers. We have to gain their hearts and love. They way to do it is by being kind to them. After the painful rule of the authoritarian left in various countries in the region, America is more attractive to them because there are shared values of freedom and democracy between them and us. America is the power that guarantees these values. We should be sensitive. Mishandling relations with them could be painfully harmful. The modern Monroe Doctrine should be based on common goals not on threats.

Overall, Tillerson had a good trip. He needs to continue his good work. However, the job has only begun. A steady and coherent continuity is now needed.

Thinking About Innovative Ways To Deal With The Venezuelan Challenge

As the year 2018 begins, turmoil in Venezuela continues. However, this has not been the result of organized protest, as the opposition is falling further into disarray, but rather the spontaneous action of desperate individuals who have looted grocery stores and even stoned cows to death in order to eat.

The riots have destroyed businesses, leaving their owners in the streets and their workers unemployed. Widespread hunger has exacerbated the violence and anarchy that has resulted from the Venezuelan regime’s many years of impunity.  In the last two years, the average Venezuelan has lost 19 pounds. Children are dying of malnutrition. People lack basic medicines. Diseases eradicated many years ago, such as diphtheria, malaria, and measles, have returned. As a Venezuelan political scientist has pointed out, the opposition has been crushed and the people are “too hungry, or too disheartened, to protest”.

Nobody can blame the people of Venezuela for not protesting or risking their lives for their freedom. Indeed, Venezuelans have held numerous protests and 135 people have died just in the last wave of demonstrations. The government crushed the opposition, eliminating and outlawing it altogether. Most recently, the Maduro regime decided that only those parties which took part in the December 10 mayoral elections will be able to nominate candidates for the presidency, disqualifying the major Venezuelan parties that boycotted the mayoral elections following suspicions of fraud in last October’s gubernatorial elections, in which the Maduro regime won the overwhelming majority of the states at a time when their actions had been responsible for the state of despair and economic collapse.

In addition, close to 900 people have been imprisoned for political reasons and more than 5,000 have been arrested.  The regime continues to impose totalitarian domination, most recently demonstrated by the massacre ordered by the government of Nicolas Maduro against Oscar Perez and six of his associates. Perez, a courageous pilot who rebelled against the regime, offered his surrender to the authorities, but instead Maduro instructed his repressors “not to leave anyone alive.”

The Perez episode represents the tragedy of Venezuela. Perez was a rebel who fought heroically like the millions of Venezuelans who took to the streets.

The strategies used against the Maduro regime were well-intended but far from sufficient. The opposition, although acting cohesively during elections, failed to send a clear national program of reconstruction to the Venezuelan population. Likewise, internal rivalries undermined the opposition and prevented it from its goal of securing a transition. Personal egos and interests led to divisions and weakness.

Episodes such as the decision of sectors of the opposition to participate in the elections for governor also played into the hands of Mr. Maduro. The purpose of creating a Constituent Assembly by referendum was to weaken the existing National Assembly, the Venezuelan legislature, which was controlled by the opposition. After opposition candidates won a few governorships through clear fraud, Henry Ramos Allup, former speaker of the National Assembly, urged elected governors from the opposition to take the oath at the Constituent Assembly, considered to be illegitimate by the entire opposition. Worse, it seems that Ramos Allup expected to be a candidate in the presidential elections, though it is not clear what leads him to believe Maduro will let him become president.

These tactics of negotiating with the government or trying to play by its rules were futile and led to Maduro’s manipulation of the opposition.

Though the opposition’s flaws have had a demoralizing effect, this had little to do with Maduro’s ability to keep his position secured. Maduro is in power because he has set the foundations of his regime on the military; he controls the means of violence. Since Hugo Chavez’s rise to power, the regime has established an alliance with the armed forces, who have been used to provide coercive power to the revolution. Indeed, through Venezuela’s riches, the army was successfully coopted. The regime purged officers deemed disloyal to the revolution and replaced them with new ones. The loyal Venezuelan Armed Forces now control not only the weapons of the nation but also parts of the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state oil company, the mining industry and the food distribution business. The military also has control of parts of the banking, transportation, and drinking water sectors. Of course, high-ranking military and security officers are involved in drug trafficking with the approval and complicity of the government.

It is for this reason that so many voices, that include intellectuals and activists, today are pondering a foreign military intervention to depose the regime. One example is Venezuelan Harvard Professor of Economics Ricardo Hausmann who suggested this kind of solution, citing the impossibility of solving the problem through negotiations or elections. Hausmann is absolutely correct to believe that the Venezuelan government will never agree to relinquish power. However, that proposal has some shortcomings as well. Hausmann proposes a military intervention by Latin American, North American and Europeans with U.N. Security Council approval. Militarily speaking, Hausmann takes inspiration from the relatively uneventful U.S invasion of Panama and deposition of its ruler Manuel Noriega almost three decades ago. However, there is no point of comparison between the two. In Panama, the operation was quick and offered minimal resistance. In Venezuela, a military intervention would generate resistance among the well-armed Venezuelan army. Such confrontation would cause casualties on both sides, a development that will bring back the ghost of Iraq and most likely generate mass protests in the United States. Therefore, I would suggest an alternative.

The international community by and large has been hesitant to impose heavy sanctions on Venezuela. International sanctions so far have been imposed on a handful of individual military officers at the initiative of the Trump Administration, followed most recently by the Europeans. However, this is not enough. It is crucial that sanctions be reinforced and imposed on the entire military and security apparatus regardless of rank or measure of individual responsibility. Furthermore, such an embargo should also be imposed on the entire Venezuelan oil industry and on everything that is state-owned.

As starvation spreads in Venezuela, it will most likely eventually begin to affect the lower sectors of the army or family members and friends of military officers. In fact, despite the increases in salaries the military receives, soldiers were recently photographed digging through garbage in search of food. A unit posted in Caracas complained of hunger through social media.

These measures should be intended to encourage rebellion and dissent among the armed forces, the key institution that sustains the regime. If this option does not work, it would be possible to resort to a semi-military operation. In that case, international forces would impose a siege on Venezuela through a naval blockade. Such blockade would prevent Venezuela from selling its oil to other countries. However, international forces should not land in Venezuela or even sacrifice one single soldier. Instead, they should provide incentives to the Venezuelan armed forces to dessert the Maduro regime and rebel against it.

The operation proposed would require support from Latin American presidents, who have been mostly hesitant to take serious measures against the Venezuelan regime. Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro stands alone as the only moral voice in the region while Latin American leaders hide behind empty words and futile calls for government-opposition negotiations, such as the ones currently taking place in the Dominican Republic. The ultimate removal of the Maduro regime is not just a humanitarian duty; it is matter of regional security.

Some Progress in International Approach to Venezuelan Crisis, but still a long way to go

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a dinner organized by the Interamerican Institute for Democracy with the Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro. This courageous man, who surprised the region by going from serving a president sympathetic to Chavismo to a tireless champion of human rights, has doubled-down on his attacks on the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro– this time in a speech to the United Nations Security Council.

Almagro urged the international community to intervene to stop the repressive regime in Venezuela. Almagro, stating that no country should be “complacent with systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela.” Then, in a clear allusion to world inaction on the Venezuelan crisis, he added that there is “no political, economic or legal argument that can justify going along with murderers and torturers”. He urged the UN Security Council to address the crisis since Venezuela is a “threat to the political and social stability of the region” He sent a diplomatic message to the international community by claiming that silence on the part of the international community encourages the brutal Venezuelan regime actions. Almagro called on the countries to set aside economic interests and address this important moral issue.

Not only did Almagro break with his Latin American masters, whose feckless attitude so far has avoided the application of any material pressure on the Caribbean region. Next to Almagro sat the U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who denounced the Venezuelan regime as a violent narco-state that constitutes a threat to the region and the world.

Ambassador Haley also broke a tradition of foreign policy dominated by an obscure State Department bureaucracy whose most notorious public face has been Thomas Shannon, a man who has survived and influenced multiple U.S Administrations. The State Department has tirelessly advocated a conciliatory policy towards the Venezuelan regime, arguing that a tough policy would damage the image and interests of the U.S in the region. Likewise, Haley broke former President Obama’s policy of appeasing a state whose enmity towards the U.S is not only irreversible, but also a key part of its identity. Haley was correct when she said that Venezuela is a threat beyond its borders, since it is not only a narco-state, but has also made alliances with Iran and terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and the Spanish Basque group ETA.

Worse, Venezuela is in the Western Hemisphere, our own neighborhood. American, Western governments and the media (including key conservative outlets) may have ignored all of these developments, but Venezuela, Iran, Russia and China haven’t. They have all noticed it and talk to each other even if we don’t. As a result, our failure to protect our region has weakened our image, making us and our allies vulnerable. No better example of this exists than the dangerous agreement signed between the Colombian government and the guerilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Such agreement signed under the sponsorship of Cuba and Venezuela has made Timochenko, a former FARC leader, candidate for the next elections. Timochenko has a record of kidnappings, murder,  and torture that, according to documents from Colombia’s Prosecutor General, the Inspector General and National Police, as well as the International Criminal Court (ICC), he should face criminal charges that warrant 1,600 years in prison. However, the Maduro/Castro-inspired Colombia-FARC agreement prevents this from happening.

Almagro and U.S leadership have also brought the European Union to impose sanctions and restrictions on Venezuela. So far, the sanctions are not strong enough, but are expected to increase. We know that the EU needs more pressure to act, given their tradition of acting on economic interests and insufficient moral clarity.

With all of the security and foreign policy challenges we are facing in the Middle East and Asia, it is encouraging that the U.S Administration is not losing sight of this important geo-political crisis. However, despite of being an improvement, this action is still insufficient and far from achieving its goals.

We urge the Trump Administration to use American influence in the region and the world to expand punitive action against the Maduro regime and increase its own.

U.S. Sanctions Venezuelan Officials, EU Imposes Arms Embargo

The European Union has agreed on November 8th, to impose an arms embargo on Venezuela and will consider more sanctions in response to the on-going political crisis there.

On November 9th, the U.S. sanctioned 10 Venezuelan officials, including government ministers.  The U.S. claims these officials are associated with undermining electoral processes, media censorship, and corruption in government-administered food programs in Venezuela.

This is the third round of officials sanctioned by the U.S., with 13 officials in the Venezuelan government, military and state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) sanctioned in July. In August, the U.S. sanctioned 8 more officials for their role in creating the Constituent Assembly, which is made up entirely of allies of the ruling Socialist Party and President Nicolas Maduro.

The crisis in Venezuela has been driven by protests, some violent, for months as opposition leaders from the Democratic Unity Round Table (MUD) face off with Maduro supporters. The opposition accuses President Maduro of moving towards a dictatorship and want him to resign while Maduro accuses the opposition of conspiring with foreign entities, specifically the U.S., to destabilize the country.

The country is also in the middle of an economic crisis that has led to high food prices and a lack of basic goods.  Maduro blames the economic crisis on U.S.-backed capitalist conspiracy. In a recent speech to the U.N. Trump identified the Venezuelan regime’s socialist policies as the cause of economic turmoil.

On October 15th, state governor elections were held and while all indications suggested Socialist Party candidates were expected to be ousted from office, the final results showed that the party won 17 of 23 governorships. The U.S. declared the elections unfair and illegitimate.

The EU is following the U.S., who imposed new sanctions on Venezuela in August. President Trump passed Executive Order 13808 which prohibits American financial institutions from providing new money to the government or the PDVSA.

The U.S. first imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2015 under Executive Order 13692. This E.O. targeted those involved in or responsible for human rights violations and abused in response to anti-government protests, persecution of political opponents, restriction of press freedoms, arrest and detention of anti-government protestors, and the public corruption by senior government officials in Venezuela.

In August, President Trump said he had not ruled out military force to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, an option condemned by U.S. allies in the region. The last time a U.S. President used force for political ends in the Americas was when the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to arrest Panamanian President Manuel Noreiga on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. Several Venezuelan leaders, including Maduro’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami, are alleged to have ties to drug trafficking and international terrorism.

On September 24th, Trump released the latest list of countries facing travel restrictions to the U.S. and Venezuela was one of the countries added to the list. Under the travel restrictions, the entry of certain Venezuelan officials and their immediate family members were banned from entering the U.S. The Venezuelan government called the travel restrictions a form of political terrorism.

There is mixed opinions in Latin America on whether the U.S. should further sanction the Venezuelan government. Argentina believes in imposing a full embargo on oil in Venezuela and claims there would be broad support in Latin America for U.S. doing it.

Argentine president Mauricio Macri has criticized the U.S. and said it should tighten its sanctions on Venezuela by imposing a full embargo on its oil exports to the U.S. It is unlikely though that the U.S. would block all imports of Venezuelan crude because it is considered the most drastic action the U.S. could take, as it would harm not only the U.S. oil industry but would also affect Venezuela’s ability to buy imported food and medicine and to pay off debts. Venezuela is the U.S.’s third-largest oil supplier and the oil would be hard to replace because it is heavier than petroleum produced by most U.S. oil fields.

The U.S. goal in Venezuela is to return the government to full democracy, including free elections, adherence to the country’s constitution and the reestablishment of the authority of the elected assembly.

U.S. Key Piece in the Transition to Democracy in the face of Opposition’s Collapse

In Venezuela, the opposition has reached a crisis, which was very much expected given that bad apples within it have undermined the struggle for democracy for many years now.  Indeed, for a long time the opposition has participated in elections against a government which has aspired to exercise full control over the Venezuelan state and society.

However, that has not always been clear to the opposition.

The opposition’s hope began to rise when it won a supermajority in the National Assembly in the 2015 parliamentary elections. But a few months after the elections, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which is controlled by the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, suspended 3 elected members of the opposition and later continued to undermine its work. After mass protests erupted this year in Venezuela, revealing the illegitimacy of the Maduro regime, the government called for the election of a constituent assembly, which would rewrite the constitution with the purpose of perpetuating the regime and reducing the power of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. This should have been enough to convince the opposition that there will never be an electoral exit to the current Venezuelan crisis.

Yet last October, an election for governors took place and some parties of the opposition chose to participate.  In a clear case of fraud, the government won 18 governorships while the opposition won 5. Furthermore, the five governors who won the election were persuaded by Henry Ramos Allup, the leader of one of the opposition parties and a former president of the National Assembly, to swear before the illegitimate constituent assembly. One of the governors refused to be persuaded and denounced Ramos Allup’s efforts, whose goal was nothing more than to become a candidate for president in the next illusive elections. It was at that point, that the united opposition, or MUD, abandoned him.

The Ramos Allup case shows how much the people of Venezuela have been betrayed by the opportunism of the political class.

As the journalist Orlando Ochoa Tiran has pointed out in a recent column written in Spanish,  “History has proven that, in order to achieve a desirable consensus in the face of a severe crisis, such crisis needs to be of such magnitude that it does not offer any of the political leaders the chance of surviving (politically). … In Venezuela, such crisis could not be more severe for the Venezuelan people. But the leaders of the opposition, in order to survive politically, defended what they have called ‘political spaces’, which is nothing but a euphemism to negotiate and adapt no matter what.”

So, what is next?

A new era has begun. The opposition must have the courage to fight with the people in the streets or perish. There is no alternative for them–it is freedom or death.

At the same time, the international community must help—not with statements, but with actions. Latin American countries must begin a process of heavy sanctions and isolation of Venezuela.

On October 26th, the so called “Lima Group”, a group of 12 Latin American countries plus Canada, issued a statement calling to support the National Assembly and electoral reform; demanding the provision of humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners; and for the intervention of the United Nations

Of course none of these threats are likely to frighten the Maduro government, for threats must have teeth. This is why the U.S reaction to the statement made more sense when it pledged to apply it” economic “weight” to restore democracy in Venezuela.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, is the most outstanding and heroic voice fighting for democracy in Venezuela. This week, he told a group of which I was part of that if there is any chance of restoring democracy in Venezuela, it is in the hands of the U.S., whose sanctions can hit the regime hard.

At this point, the Trump Administration cannot wait any longer; we must begin with a full oil embargo immediately.

Trump’s Nontraditional UN Address and his Stance Against Rogue Regimes

Leaders from around the globe assembled on September 19th for the United Nation’s General Assembly. President Donald Trump presented early in the day, offering a speech that rapidly diverged from traditional U.N. talking points.

Trump began by acknowledging the need for the nations of the world to come together peacefully to work towards common goals, before pivoting to emphasis the importance of upholding American sovereignty and encouraging other nations to do likewise. Trump also emphasized the need for reforming the institutional practices of the UN, directly and aggressively addressed rogue regimes including North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba.

Minutes before Trump’s speech UN Secretary General Antionio Guterres appealed for statesmanship stating, “we must not sleepwalk our way into war.”

President Trump focused a substantial amount of time discussing North Korea, warning that the entire world is threatened by their continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development. He said, “If it [the US] forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

He then called out North Korea’s trading partners, stating that no decent nation should be trading with North Korea.

North Korea under Kim Jong Un has metastasized into a serious global threat. After their sixth nuclear test on September 3rd, triggering a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, this nuclear  test was the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested. North Korea has conducted 15 other long and short range missile tests this year, despite UN sanctions.

After condemning North Korea, President Trump pivoted toward addressing Iran stating that it is a “destabilizing influence” for the Middle East. He stated that the nuclear deal was an embarrassment to the United States and one of the worst nonproliferation agreements that the United States has been involved in. Trump directly addressed Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism, and said the nuclear deal should be abandoned by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the European Union.

As Trump addressed Iran his focus was on the nuclear deal. The deal  requires the State Department to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is still complying with the agreement under the terms ironed out by the Obama administration in 2015. However, one of Trump’s campaign promises was to end the nuclear agreement. Here he faces opposing pressures from both this loyal support base who want to see the deal decertified and his advisors such as his national security advisor General H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who appear to oppose decertification.

Trump is still weighing his next moves toward Iran, and faces a mid-October deadline for re-certifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

Towards the end of his speech President Trump called out both Cuba and Venezuela, speaking out against the harsh socialist regimes. The Trump administration has not lifted sanctions on the Cuban government, and Trump said they will not do so until Cuba makes fundamental reforms,  although he did not say exactly what reforms would be required.

Cuba made for a nice transition into discussing the economic crisis occurring in Venezuela.  President Trump called out the socialist Maduro regime, for causing Venezuela’s economic collapse, and accused the Venezuelan government of allowing a once prosperous nation to suffer. He also thanked the other world leaders for providing support to Venezuela as well as saying the U.S. will take further action if the government continues on this path.

In Venezuela, a study published earlier this year reported that roughly 75% of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds due to food shortages. On July16th the results of a popular consultation     certified the illegitimacy of the government of Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition continued with popular demonstrations against the regime. As the demonstrations from the opposition persist, the international community must impose harsher economic sanction to pressure the regime, similar to Cuba, rather than take military action. Since April more than 5,000  individuals have been detained by the government, and as of July 31st 124 deaths were linked to the demonstrations.

President Trump has said the America possess a military option to prevent a destabilized Venezuela, although its unclear what such an operation would look like. Any military option is opposed by the Colombian and Brazilian governments, who the U.S. have maintained close military cooperation.

Some areas which President Trump declined to address were the situation in Myanmar, his efforts towards reestablishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. However, President Trump will be having several individual meetings during the rest of the week with several national leaders, where these issues are sure to come up.

Trump’s speech appears to have played well to his political base, and less so to fellow United Nations General Assembly attendees.

The President of the United Nations General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, after President Trump’s speech said that that many people have become disillusioned with the U.N. in a world grappling with conflict, poverty, terrorism and global warming, but acknowledged the U.N.’s potential to help.  He also stated that U.N. needs to put more emphasis on warding off conflicts, rather than reacting to them.

French President Macron defended the Iran Deal, saying there was no alternative, while British Prime Minister Theresa May called the deal “vitally important.”  These nations along with the EU and UN has urged the U.S. to not scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which eased international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

With his first United Nations address under his belt, President Trump called out the major players in conflict and emphasized that the United States and the members of the United Nations should not tolerate the security, economic, and humanitarian violations that rogue governments impose on the world today.  Trump also seemed to clarify that while the world looks to the United States for direction on addressing international security concerns, his first responsibility was to American interests and security.

Pence’s Visit To Latin America Indicates Important Shift In U.S. Policy

Just last week Vice President, Mike Pence returned from a trip to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Panama. Unlike the majority of the trips by senior American officials to the region the purpose of the visit was not purely to talk about trade, economic, or other issues as if the situation were normal.

Instead, Pence’s trip sought to target a serious regional security issue—the Venezuelan crisis.

The Vice President has taken advantage of the momentum created among countries in Latin America, of which most now recognize the Venezuelan government as a dictatorship and, at long last, are willing to do something about it.

The presidents of the three main countries visited by Mr. Pence- Colombia, Argentina, and Chile- have rejected a U.S. military operation against the regime of Nicolas Maduro, as was suggested by President Trump two weeks ago. The Vice President seems to have accepted the Latin American leaders’ convictions that no U.S. troops should be posted on Venezuelan soil. This is a wise decision; many American soldiers would likely lose their lives against Venezuela’s 280,000 troops. This is not 1983 Grenada, nor is it 1989 Panama.

However, Pence seems to have received enough assurances from these Latin American presidents that there is enough consensus and unity in the region to use economic and diplomatic means to twist the arm of the Venezuelan regime. Even the cautious and often-reserved Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet expressed support for economic sanctions.

Addressing Venezuelan exiles in Doral, Florida, Pence reminded them of the sanctions that have already been imposed on Venezuela and stated clearly “there will be more sanctions to come.” Furthermore, Pence assured the audience that the U.S. is ready to do everything in its capacity “to help Venezuelans recover their democracy.”

Less than 48 hours after the Vice President’s speech, the United States imposed new sanctions on Venezuela. This time, restrictions were placed on the trade of new Venezuelan government bonds, which will make it harder for Venezuela to pay off its debt. This alone will probably not be enough to sufficiently weaken the regime. In addition, the U.S. has not suspended purchase of Venezuelan oil; CITGO, the American branch of PDVSA which owns some refineries and pipelines in the U.S., has been exempted from any new sanctions.

Yet, this does not mean that this could not be the next step. In fact, it should be the next step if there is no substantial change in Venezuela.

Despite the insufficiency of the sanctions, Pence’s strategy on Venezuela should be seen as a major turning point in U.S. policy. The Bush Administration delegated such policy to the State Department bureaucracy, as later the Obama Administration did to countries of the region, which were then ruled mostly by left-wing governments sympathetic to the Venezuelan regime.

This time, U.S. policy towards Venezuela is also based on cooperation with Latin American countries while simultaneously trying to regain leadership in the region. The U.S. again, regards itself as a major power that can make a difference in Latin America. Furthermore, this time the U.S. is taking the initiative and not merely “leading from behind,” the Obama doctrine which has now become a euphemism for abdication.

The status-quo in Venezuela is unacceptable. For the first time, we are hearing from the highest levels of the American government what we have been saying here at the Center for Security Policy for a long time. The deterioration of democracy is not merely a moral problem of human rights or freedom, but also a security problem, as the spread of dictatorial impunity enables transnational crime and terrorism.

Venezuela has been dangerous to our security for almost two decades, ever since the Chavez regime began its journey in 1999 to become a rogue state. The Venezuelan model created a revolutionary copycat in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, aggravating the security situation even further.

Pence’s speech should be taken as a contract. We the people, including Venezuelan exiles and others in the country, should hold the Administration accountable to make good on its promises. American refineries continue to lobby against an oil embargo on Venezuela, arguing that it would raise fuel prices and cut into their profits. But the security and determination of the U.S. in the world arena is worth much more than a gallon of gas.

Crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts should not stop until the Maduro regime collapses.

Venezuela and the Volatile Road Ahead

On July 30th, Venezuela held an election to appoint members to its new constituent assembly. The plans for a new assembly were called by President Nicolás Maduro back in May and in effect have the power to create a new constitution that would likely favor the Maduro government.

Venezuelans did not get to vote on whether they actually wanted the constituent assembly but only on what candidates they wanted to fill the 545 positions within the assembly. There was a total of 5,500 candidates running, most being Maduro supporters.

Many of the elected members are close allies to Maduro including Diosdado Cabello, Iris Varela, and Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores.

To say the election was a sham would be an understatement. The government claims that there was a high voting turnout, around 41.5% and as many as 8 million voters. However, the opposition and other sources refute this statement saying that out of the 19 million Venezuelans registered to vote, only 2.45 million voted—only 15% of total voters.

This 2.45 million is a bleak number compared to the 7.5 million who came out to vote in the July 16th referendum opposing the proposed constituent assembly. Additionally, many of the voters for the most recent election were reportedly pressured or coerced into doing so.

In addition to feeling concerned over Venezuela’s path to dictatorship, some critics believe that having an assembly as large as 545 members will not be efficient to write an effective and productive constitution.

According to Diosdado Cabello, the constituent assembly will take over in less than 72 hours. No deadline has been given for writing the constitution. This contributes to the already growing worry that Maduro established the constituent assembly to prolong his period in office.

Even on threat of incarceration, many Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the election. At least 10 people were killed in clashes between the opposition and Venezuelan forces. The total death count since the protests began over four months ago totals to at least 125. Additionally, two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, were arrested from their homes on August 1st.

The United States publicly condemned the July 30th vote as did Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Spain.

Leading up to the elections, the Trump administration sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials and hinted at more forthcoming sanctions should the election proceed.

In response to the elections, the U.S. Department of Treasury immediately placed sanctions on Maduro, freezing all of his assets and forbidding all Americans from “dealing with” the leader.

With Venezuela’s current -5.7% economic growth, it is evident the country faces an economic calamity. Food and medicine shortages are widespread throughout the country and predicted to only worsen. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s 2017 inflation rate is expected to increase to 1,660% making it the highest in the world.

In light of Venezuela’s dire economic situation, the United States must tread carefully in reprimanding the Venezuelan government for the sake of both the Venezuelan people and the American economy.

The United States is currently one of Venezuela’s main trading partners and accounts for 50% of its exported petroleum. Oil is Venezuela’s most important commodity and makes up 95% of its export income; therefore, whether the Venezuelan government admits to it or not, the country’s economic survival depends heavily on the United States.

If oil sanctions were to be placed on Venezuela, the country’s economy would plummet into further disaster and the already concerning humanitarian crisis would greatly enhance. Additionally, oil sanctions placed on Venezuela would in turn impact the U.S. economy. Gas prices would expect to rise and the U.S. would have to look elsewhere for buying oil.

In the forthcoming week, tensions in Venezuela are expected to continue to mount. Elected members are set to be sworn-in on Wednesday and many Venezuelans have vowed to continue protesting. Experts believe that a Venezuelan civil war, specifically a ‘bloody civil war’, is a potential outcome.

Venezuela has chosen to isolate itself and now stands at a precipice. To avoid falling off this cliff into greater disaster, the government must take the sanctions placed on the country seriously, the opposition must continue in their fight for democracy, and the United States must stand strong in its sanctions, only relenting if Maduro recants Venezuela’s path towards dictatorship.

The Catch-22 in Venezuela

On Thursday, July 20th, the Venezuelan opposition held a 24-hour nationwide strike as part of its campaign against the Maduro government and its plan to implement a new constitutional assembly with a vote on July 30th. The purpose of the strike was to place pressure on authorities and to reinstate order in the country. Businesses shutdown, roads were blockaded, and many private transportation services refused to run. The strike comes at a critical moment in the opposition’s campaign coined as “zero hour.”

Thursday’s events follow the July 16th referendum conducted by the Venezuelan opposition against President Nicolás Maduro and his proposed constitutional assembly. The proposed constitutional assembly would have the power to rewrite a new constitution and dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Voting will be conducted by an intricate group system the opposition says is designed to give the Maduro government and its supporters an advantage. Additionally, the July 30th elections allegedly will not give voters the option of rejecting the assembly but only for who they wish to elect. If the prospective assembly is implemented, it will consist of 545 members and almost certainly favor Maduro.

Over 7.1 million Venezuelans came out to vote in the July 16th referendum and over 98% of those voters opposed the installment of the proposed constitutional assembly. The results also revealed that voters support military use to protect the presiding constitution and want elections before Maduro’s scheduled end of term in 2019.

The Venezuelan government dismissed the Thursday strike and Maduro labeled the referendum as “meaningless.” They state that the July 30th elections to establish the constitutional assembly will continue, as planned.

The referendum and strike were not without casualties. Three people were killed and at least ten more injured. Since the protests began almost four months ago, over 90 people have been killed, 1,500 wounded, and over 3,600 arrested.

It is clear that Venezuela is ideologically divided between Maduro’s supporters and his adversaries. The two sides are staunchly at odds with one another: the opposition wants new elections before Maduro’s set end of term in 2019 and believe that the proposed assembly could encourage dictatorship.

Maduro, on the other hand, wants to implement the proposed assembly because he claims that it will improve Venezuela’s political and fiscal state. Additionally, he asserts that the opposition seeks to depose the government. However, these claims are highly suspect. With Maduro’s low approval ratings and the state of the economy, his ability to maintain power will be enhanced with a pro-Maduro assembly.

But the referendum and nationwide strike continues to illustrate that the majority of Venezuelans are against the Maduro government’s political and economic practices.

Once the richest state in Latin America, Venezuela is in an economic calamity. Its 2015 economic growth is marked at -5.7%, a diminishment compared to its 2011 4.2% growth. Additionally, over 87% of citizens cannot purchase essential food, 76% of public hospitals lack access to basic medical supplies, and infant mortality rate has risen by 21% since 2015. Foreign reserves are at their lowest since 1995 and many of these reserves are in the form of gold bars not easily exchanged.

Many Venezuelans blame the government for the current economic state while the authorities, on the other hand, place the blame on foreign players. While Venezuelans may disapprove of Maduro, he still maintains support and control over the military and much of the media.

Nations that have publicly supported the Venezuela referendum include Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and the United States. President Donald Trump stated that the United States will take “strong and swift economic actions” if President Maduro proceeds with the constitutional assembly on July 30th.

Faced with mounting pressure from the international community and threatened economic actions, Maduro might be forced to postpone the July 30th elections. Oil accounts for 95% of its export income and the United States is its main petroleum importer. Without international monetary sustenance, Venezuela would plummet further into economic disaster.

Venezuela is in a catch-22. The people and government are at opposite ends of the spectrum in what they want for the future of Venezuela. The people want the continuance of democratic norms, whereas Maduro and his supports seek to tighten their grip over the nation.

While the future of Venezuela is unclear, if the July 30th vote goes forward, it is important for nations like the United States to act accordingly. Though the Trump administration has not stated the specifics of proposed sanctions, they would reportedly include freezing assets and banning U.S. business in the country.

Maduro Versus the People

As the protests against President Nicolás Maduro continue, the death toll in Venezuela has risen to 66. Demonstrations were triggered by the Supreme Court’s March 29 announcement when it ruled to dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly. This in effect would give all the Assembly’s legislative powers to the Court. The ruling was reversed three days later after provoking nationwide protests.

Venezuela is in the midst of a severe economic crisis. There are widespread shortages of food and medical supplies. An estimated 30% of school-aged children suffer from malnutrition and over 87% of people struggle financially to buy essential food. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s inflation rate is expected to increase to 1,600% this year, which would be the highest in the world.

The crisis has much to do with Maduro’s approach to Venezuela’s oil exports. Since Chávez’s time, the Venezuelan government has controlled the monetary side of the oil industry and Maduro continues this control. Oil accounts for over 95% of its export income. Due in part to the decline in oil prices in 2014, Venezuela saw a decrease in the flow of imports and therefore, a decrease in its economy. The country’s economic state is extremely volatile because of its dependence on foreign nations, such as the United States, its main petroleum importer.

There is also an immense amount of political corruption that exists through drug trafficking and other sources of money laundering.

Faced with widening economic crisis and corruption Venezuelan people launched a series of street protests. As managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets Russ Dallen states, the Venezuelan people are “starving because there’s no food, and they’re protesting because they want a change of government.”

Venezuela has held democratically elected governments since the late 1950s, but when Hugo Chávez rose to power in 1999, he transitioned the country to an increasingly authoritarian state. With Maduro’s rise in 2013, state control only expanded. The curtailing of the press and the strict economic sanctions on price controls and currency exchange are just two examples of Maduro exerting power.

The Venezuelan opposition has four demands: a call for general elections, an international humanitarian aid channel, the release of imprisoned activists, and reformation of the current Court and Assembly system.

With the backing of the Venezuelan army, Maduro is difficult to successfully oppose. He has used violence to disband opposition protestors who have taken efforts to defend themselves.

On May 1, in an act of self-preservation, Maduro implemented a constitutional assembly seeking to alter the constitution, which the opposition says is a sham meant to delay upcoming elections.

Elections are set to occur on July 30, a major delay from the original December 2016 deadline. Maduro likely sought the postponement because he fears an opposition victory, comparable to the 2015 parliamentary election, where the opposition gained a parliamentary majority.

But Maduro has powerful foreign supporters that have helped to prevent his political demise, including Russia and Iran.

Up until the 2014 oil price decrease, Venezuela was one of Russia’s principal importers for military equipment. Russia’s support for the Maduro government was affirmed in February by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Venezuela’s financial crisis has caused Russia to slash its budget by close to $1 billion dollars. This financial hindrance could potentially strain Russia’s relationship with Venezuela.

Iran is also a strong alliance for Venezuela, which has allowed groups like IRGC and Hezbollah to operate within its borders unimpeded. With Venezuela’s Vice President, Tareck El Aissami’s alleged ties to Hezbollah and other terrorist networks, the country is a hotspot for illegal activities.

Other international connections for Venezuela include China and Ecuador.

The future of Venezuela depends on two polarizing forces: Maduro and his opponents, specifically the Venezuelan opposition and its leaders such as Henrique Capriles.

With the help of outside influences, powerful military, and the dictatorship style rule Maduro has established, he has successfully maintained power. However, the dire economic crisis and the Venezuelan’s outcry over the current establishment is not to be ignored.