- President Donald Trump has focused much of his foreign-policy attention on Iran and North Korea.
- But Venezuela is reportedly a priority alongside those countries for Trump’s national-security team.
- The Trump administration has already taken aggressive action against Venezuelan officials this year.
Despite President Donald Trump’s apparent overarching focus on Iran and North Korea during his first year in office, those countries apparently share their space at the top of the president’s national security agenda.
The president’s National Security Council “has been told that Venezuela is one of Donald Trump’s top three priorities. Iran and North Korea being the other two,” Mark Feierstein, who was the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere during the Obama administration, said during a panel discussion at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York on Tuesday.
Trump has struck a more aggressive posture toward Venezuela than his predecessor, sometimes to the detriment of the effort to build consensus against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
In August, Trump said the US had “many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”
The remark was greeted with dismay in Latin America – as Maduro harped on it to rally support – and left US diplomats scrambling to allay concerns in the region. However, Feierstein said, administration staffers anticipated such a comment, though it was not clear in what form it would come.
But, he said of the military option, “that’s not serious. That’s not on the table.”
While many governments in Latin America and around the world have criticised the Maduro government, countries in the region haven’t taken much action and EU measures have been limited. Venezuela’s domestic political opposition has also made little headway – stymied by pressure from Maduro as well as by its own internal divisions.
The Trump administration has a policy goal for Venezuela, according to Feierstein, but is split on how to pursue it.
“What they’re trying to achieve is pretty basic. It’s a peaceful, democratic transition. They are at loss about how to achieve that, like the rest of us,” he said. “But there is a division. The question is who ‘they’ is. There is division within the administration between the NSC and the State Department.”
“The NSC is not enthusiastic about the negotiations in Santo Domingo,” Feierstein added, referring to negotiations between the Maduro government and opposition leaders taking place in the Dominican Republic.
However, he said, the “State Department, at least at the most senior levels, is more supportive” of those talks.
The Trump administration leveled several rounds of sanctions against dozens of Venezuelan officials in late July and early August, calling Maduro a “dictator” and directing sanctions against him specifically.
Over the summer, officials within the State Department succeeded in reducing the severity of some of those sanctions, arguing that harsher measures would imperial ongoing dialogue between the government and opposition.
However, those in the White House and on the National Security Council pushing for “strong and swift” action eventually won out – leading to broader financial sanctions against the Maduro government and Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.
Those sanctions have complicated business dealings for PDVSA and others in Venezuela, but do not yet appear to have created fissures within the Maduro government. The Trump administration also stopped short of more drastic action like an embargo on Venezuelan oil, which many have said would worsen the situation in Venezuela – though at least one leader from the region has pushed for such a move.
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