Barack Obama’s State Department maneuvered to help stabilize the regime of Nicolás Maduro, blocking sanctions against chavista leaders involved in narcotrafficking and promoting an ineffective dialogue that ended up weakening the Venezuelan opposition, said the former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega.
The diplomat, who has spent years promoting the Venezuelan democratic cause in Washington, said in an interview that US Drug Enforcement Administration officials and the Treasury Department had previously tried to adopt drug sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, but only after Donald Trump assumed the presidency where these measures implemented.
“There was a strategy on the part of senior [Obama administration] diplomats who sought to favor the stability of the Venezuelan government at the expense of US security,” said Noriega, who also served as US ambassador at the Organization of American States (OAS).
This was a strategy applied from the State Department that was even questioned within the administration itself, particularly in its insistence on pushing the Venezuelan opposition to sit down at a table to dialogue with the regime, a proposal that involved suspending its efforts to dismiss Maduro.
Speaking with British newspaper The Guardian, President Obama’s top security adviser on Latin America, Mark Feierstein, said several US agencies had tried months ago to apply sanctions against El Aissami on suspicion that he was one of the main forces behind drug trafficking In Venezuela.
But the sanctions were “contained last year” at the insistence of the State Department for fear that they would interfere with the efforts of dialogue between the government and the opposition, Feierstein told the newspaper.
By blocking the sanctions, the State Department also argued that they could hinder the diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Joshua Holt, a US citizen arrested by the regime under false terrorist charges.
But not all within the Obama administration agreed with that strategy, Noriega said.
“In the last few weeks I have met with officials who were [part of Barack Obama's team] who could not understand what the State Department was trying to do,” Noriega said.
“Some of these people within the Obama administration, who had been in favor of the sanctions, were questioning the execution of a dialogue with Maduro,” he added.
Washington’s actions also discouraged other countries and the OAS from acting actively to come out in defense of democracy in Venezuela, he emphasized.
Questions such as these, raise questions about the performance of Thomas Shannon, Washington’s special envoy to Venezuela, who dominated US policy toward the oil-rich country over the past two years.
Opposition sources told the Nuevo Herald that the diplomat was one of the main promoters of the dialogue, and that his involvement convinced political leaders, who had doubts about the negotiations with Maduro to sit at the negotiating table.
“Thomas Shannon ended up promoting a dialogue that did not work,” said Lilian Tintori, wife of the arrested political leader Leopoldo López, in an interview with CNN.
During the interview, Noriega said that the Obama administration appeared to have been focused on betting on Maduro’s stability to avoid the volatility that could lead to regime change in the country.
“They did not want to have a collapse in Venezuela that later could have been interpreted as a failure of the administration. But the consequence was that they allowed the situation to deteriorate economically and politically,” he said.
This economic and political deterioration has had very severe repercussions on the Venezuelan population, which now lives under conditions of unprecedented shortages of food and medicine.
Noriega indicated that the decision to apply sanctions against El Aissami, taken after Trump’s inauguration, but before his team was in place, denotes that it was law-enforcement professionals who were in the Obama administration who proceeded to apply the sanctions.
“It was the career professionals, who said, ‘We are going to proceed now and challenge the State Department in its intention to block this as they have been doing for the past year,’” Noriega explained.
By finally putting the Chavista leader in the Kingpin list, an action that freezes his assets, the Treasury Department confirmed that El Aissami plays an important role in international drug trafficking.
El Aissami facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela and exercised control over airplanes taking off from a Venezuelan air base, as well as controlling drug routes leaving Venezuelan ports, said the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a unit of the Department of Treasure.
The vice president, who would assume the presidency of Venezuela if Maduro left power, was also accused of protecting other drug traffickers and working with Mexican and Colombian cartels, said the OFAC announcement.
But El Aissami is not the only member of the Bolivarian regime that is immersed in drug trafficking, said Noriega, who advocated that law enforcement agencies continue to prosecute the chavista leaders who control the drug business in Venezuela.
“What about Diosdado Cabello?” Noriega asked in reference to the former president of the National Assembly. “He has been named as one of the biggest drug lords in the country and he has not yet been sanctioned. Who is protecting him? ”
And the fight against drug trafficking also must be accompanied by a hemispheric strategy to help Venezuela return to the path of democracy.
“This Treasury action is a good start, but it has to be implemented within the framework of a diplomatic strategy to work with neighbors to ensure that Venezuela is forced to comply with its old commitments to respect democratic principles and respect for human rights” he added.
Translated by IASW