By Roger F. Noriega
Just as the United States is undergoing a political transition of its own, Venezuela’s dubious regime has taken the provocative step of empowering an anti-U.S. hardliner with ties to narcotraffickers and Middle Eastern terrorism.
Many Americans may consider Venezuela’s collapsing economy, food shortages, and political upheaval as none of our business. However, the recent power grab of reputed drug kingpin and Hezbollah ally, Tareck el-Aissami, as Venezuela’s vice president poses a clear and present danger to the security of the United States and its neighbors.
President Trump’s foreign policy team can convert a potential crisis into an early victory by working with key neighbors to fashion a multilateral rescue of Venezuela, backed up by targeted sanctions against El-Aissami and other corrupt leaders who traffic in drugs and abet international terrorism.
Courageous Venezuelans are struggling to save their country through democratic means; but they are confronting a ruthless regime that is micromanaged by Cuba and propped up by sweetheart deals with Russia and China. Senior Venezuelan officials have conspired with Colombian narco-guerrillas and Hezbollah terrorists to amass illicit fortunes and advance anti-U.S. operations. All of these forces benefit from keeping a lawless government in power in Caracas, even as the Venezuelan economy crumbles and a humanitarian crisis grows.
President Nicolás Maduro, the handpicked successor of the late strongman Hugo Chávez who died in 2013, inherited a bloated bureaucracy, unsustainable social spending, an economy smothered by corruption and government intervention, and toxic political polarization. His destructive policies, a faltering petroleum industry, and the downward spiral in oil prices made matters worse. As unrest grew, Maduro and his Cuban handlers have jailed political opponents, used expropriations to smother the private sector, and co-opted the armed forces. He dispatched regime gangs and the National Guard to attack a university-student uprising in 2014, leaving dozens dead, hundreds arrested, and thousands injured.
In December 2015, Maduro’s United Socialist Party lost a landslide election, giving the democratic opposition a super majority in the National Assembly. Maduro has spent the last 13 months defying the legislature—packing the judiciary with PSUV cronies who have nullified Assembly actions and harassed opposition legislators.
In the meantime, due to the lack of domestic production or hard currency to fund exports, the shortage of food, medicine, and most consumer goods has deteriorated into a humanitarian nightmare. The opposition has sought to invoke a constitutional recall process to oust Maduro and replace his ruinous economic model. Most national polls show more than three-fourths of Venezuelans lining up against him. However, PSUV loyalists on electoral council killed the chance for a peaceful, constitutional, and democratic solution.
Although the Obama Administration paid lip service to the recall process, its diplomats appeared to favor stability and to block U.S. investigations into widespread corruption. When Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro pressed the case for democratic solidarity and humanitarian relief, U.S. diplomats undercut him by favoring a phony dialogue brokered by a handful of Maduro’s leftist allies.
Momentum in favor of a regional rescue mission may be growing. In the last year, center-right governments have taken power in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. The conviction of members of Maduro’s immediate family on U.S. drug smuggling charges last November and the empowerment of el-Aissami—who investigators say allocates a ton of cocaine a month to support Hezbollah’s operations—is dramatic evidence that the regime in Caracas has no intention of abiding by Venezuela’s constitution or the region’s democratic standards.
Trump’s foreign policy team can lead with diplomacy, encouraging key OAS member states to work with Almagro to forge a multilateral response. In order to bolster such a regional solution and to get leverage on a recalcitrant regime, President Trump should apply executive sanctions targeting Venezuela’s corrupt leaders, using authority approved by Congress last year with broad bipartisan support.
Such a concerted effort should also include signals to the professionals in Venezuela’s army, as well as to pragmatic Chavistas, that the inter-American community will support a democratic transition and will not stand by as narcoterrorists hijack a government.
By unmasking El-Aissami and other hardliners and by dismantling their dangerous operations, the Trump Administration will signal its resolve to stand with the region to promote democracy and to confront transnational organized crime that threatens U.S. and regional security.
Roger Noriega (@RogerNoriega) was U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States. He is founder and managing director of Visión Américas LLC and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.