Trump Shifts U.S. Policy Towards Venezuela, But Will it Last?

After a long period of unease stretching back to the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, and even greater unrest in the last eight years, Venezuela’s opposition movement finally has hope.

During the first month of President Trump’s administration, the question of U.S. policy on Venezuela and other Latin American countries remained largely unknown. But recently, political leaders in Venezuela have a good idea of what America’s new position might look like. We could be seeing a much more hardline approach compared to the policy under former President Obama.

In early February a bipartisan group of congress members called for sanctions on Venezuela and demanded for the release of political prisoners. They specifically pointed to Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami, and his possible links with drugs and terrorism.

In early February a bipartisan group of congress members called for sanctions on Venezuela and demanded for the release of political prisoners.

In response, last week the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against El Aissami for drug trafficking under the Kingpin Act along with other prominent Venezuelans. This first act sent a sharp message to Venezuela’s socialist leader, President Nicolás Maduro Moros, known as Maduro.

Following this, Trump used his Twitter account to post a picture of himself with Vice President Pence and Senator Marco Rubio (FL-R) along with Lilian Tintori, the wife of a prominent Venezuelan opposition politician, now being held as a political prisoner. In the tweet, Trump called for the release of Tintori’s husband, Leopoldo Lopez.

 Then the U.S. Department of State called for the release of more than 100 prisoners of conscience, including Lopez.

In addition to calling for the release of political prisoners, the sanctions against Venezuela are also a way of condemning the human rights abuses (including the imprisonment of Lopez) happening in this south American country

For opposition activists, such as youth party leader Carlos Graffe, recent U.S. actions are welcome. Graffe, youth wing leader for Proyecto Venezuela spoke with Opportunity Lives almost a year ago about the protest movement in Venezuela and his hopes for the future, which include overturning President Maduro’s government.

“This is an important change inside the politics of the U.S. and Venezuela,” Graffe said, acknowledging both the White House’s condemnation of El Aissami and Trump’s tweet about Lopez. He said both made an impact. He pointed to the government’s reaction which involved shutting down the Spanish-language CNN broadcasts into Venezuela.

“This is an important change inside the politics of the U.S. and Venezuela”

Venezuelan Emiliana Duarte wrote in The Atlantic about the fear people had the day after the new sanctions against El Aissami. Fear is common in Venezuela, especially as Maduro has reacted to recent protests by creating an “anti-coup command” run by — guess who? — El Aissami. This has sparked a whole new round of arrests among still defiant opposition leaders just in the past month.

Yet Trump’s photograph with Tintori set off a “deep political shockwave,” according to Duarte, who wrote, “the sight of the president of the United States siding publicly with the most fearless champion of Venezuelan democracy was powerful.”

In fact, embolden protesters, including Graffe, marched in Caracas on Saturday, February 18, demanding Lopez’s release.

Opposition leaders in other cities and around the world also marked the day. These protesters risked stepping out even after the Venezuelan government upheld Lopez’s sentence the day after Trump called for his release.

But even with this new harsher response to Venezuela out of the White House, Venezuelans don’t completely trust Trump. There is a fear of his policy inconsistency, and, as Durante points out, his 4 a.m. tweets often undermine previous statements. Durante also notes that Trump hasn’t shed his “toxic” persona on the international stage, either.

There is also speculation that the tweet for Lopez was strongly pushed for by Sen. Rubio who has been a strong voice against the government in Venezuela. Without pressure and guidance from Rubio, this image might never have been seen.

Graffe is also uncertain that this marks a serious shift in U.S. policy.

“I don’t know if it’s a long term change,” he said. “We hope that the U.S. and all democratic governments raise their voice against the human rights violations in Venezuela.” He added that while international support is important, “We (Venezuelans) have to do our part. We are the only ones who can solve this… It is very difficult, but we won’t back down.”

“We (Venezuelans) have to do our part. We are the only ones who can solve this… It is very difficult, but we won’t back down.”

The Council on Foreign Relations notes that Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis has the potential to balloon into a regional hotspot and will test the administration’s ability to create a regional response. Graffe provided a heartbreaking example of this while speaking with Opportunity Lives, snapping a picture of a man digging through garbage for food during our interview.

“We live in a dictatorship now,” said Graffe.

As the economic situation worsens, Maduro will likely blame international interference from assertive governments such as the United States. But Graffe says, “Here now, people know that the only one to blame is Maduro. The latest polls are very clear about that.” Maduro’s approval rating is currently around 24 percent.

A total collapse in Venezuela could test any president’s resolve, so any unified Latin American policy from Trump will need to take this into account. But opposition activists and Venezuelan Americans appear pleased with change in tone. As Durante notes, Obama’s policy tactics of containment did little “to slow the death of Venezuela’s democracy.”

Trump appears to be following through on his campaign promises regarding Venezuela, which may also offer a clue to his plans regarding other Latin American policies. If the current administration maintains a hardline stance regarding this rogue and disintegrating government we can expect a robust U.S. policy of public pressure and sanctions. But the actual impact on the lives of the people in Venezuela who are suffering at the hands of a corrupt and broken system is much harder to predict.

Katrina Jorgensen is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @Veribatim