The US is putting a full-court press on Venezuela, but it may not get to call all the shots

  • The US is leading efforts to isolate the embattled Venezuelan government.
  • On Tuesday, members of the Organisation of American States passed a resolution that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension.
  • But many of those countries are pursuing their own interests, and their policy preferences may differ from the US’s.

The Trump administration has been pushing countries in Latin America to further isolate Venezuela – calling on members of the Organisation of American States to suspend the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro

In a vote on Tuesday, 19 members of the regional body approved a resolution that opens a path for that suspension.

The resolution states that Maduro’s May 20 presidential reelection lacked legitimacy – a position some countries in the region have already taken – and called on members to take action “to assist in the restoration of democratic order in Venezuela.”

Just four countries voted against it: Venezuela, Saint Vincent, Dominica, and Bolivia. But 11 countries abstained, and it’s not clear if they’re interested in taking the next, more severe step.

‘The OAS must stand for freedom’

The resolution – much of which is recycled from previous failed resolutions – comes after concerted US lobbying, led by Vice President Mike Pence, who said prior to the vote that “the OAS must stand for freedom” and called on members “to expel the Maduro dictatorship.”

The US and the 14-member Lima Group, which formed last year to address Venezuela’s crises, have been trying to drive a wedge between Caracas and its traditional allies in the region.

US pressure likely played a key role in the resolution’s passage, said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.

“Not only did countries like Nicaragua and Haiti, traditional allies of Venezuela in the OAS, abstain instead of voting against it, but the Dominican government even voted in favour,” Ramsey said. “This shows that Venezuela’s government is increasingly unable to flex its muscles on the international stage.”

Haiti, a major recipient of assistance from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, which has provided cheap fuel to Caribbean and Central American countries since 2005, was a target of US pressure prior to the vote.

The Trump administration is reportedly frustrated with Haiti abstaining from OAS votes on Venezuela. On Monday, the White House hosted a reception for more than 20 “like-minded” OAS members – from which Haiti was absent.

“We did not invite any countries that recognise the Maduro regime as legitimate,” US Ambassador to the OAS Carlos Trujillo told the Miami Herald. Also absent were Jamaica and Saint Lucia, which both voted for the measure on Tuesday, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, which abstained.

But the abstentions, Ramsey said, indicate the US could still come up short.

“I think it’s just as notable that countries that have criticised Venezuela’s government, like Uruguay, Ecuador, and Belize, abstained rather than supporting the resolution,” Ramsey said. “This shows the limitations of the US attempts to browbeat other countries in the hemisphere into adopting its position.”

Ecuador stopped short of voting for the resolution, but its abstention reflects a shift pursued by President Lenin Moreno, who took office in May 2017 and was vice president for his predecessor, Rafael Correa, a stalwart ally of Venezuela.

In June 2017, Ecuador abstained from from a vote on an OAS resolution criticising Maduro’s government – the first time since 2007 that Ecuador didn’t back Venezuela in an international vote, said John Polga, a professor of comparative politics at the US Naval Academy.

“Since at least mid-2017, Lenin Moreno’s government has made it a point to distance itself from many of Rafael Correa’s foreign-policy positions, including uncritical support for Venezuela’s government,” Polga said.

Moreno has also sought better ties with the US, in contrast to the souring of relations under Correa.

In April, his government agreed to let the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection work in the country. On June 4, the US said it would allow Ecuadoran tomatillos into the US market. That day, after Pence and Moreno discussed Venezuela, Pence announced he would visit Ecuador later this month.

Given Moreno’s distance from Correa and his government’s previous abstention at the OAS, “Ecuador would have likely abstained from the most recent OAS vote,” Polga said.

“However,” he added, “it can’t hurt that Ecuador is seeking to strengthen its relationship with the US and that Moreno just happened to [speak to] Pence prior to the vote.” And a desire for better relations with the US “might make Ecuador more susceptible to pressure from the US regarding Venezuela.”

‘Pulling the trigger’

The US is not the only country pushing for action on Venezuela, and as Ecuador shows, Washington is not the only one pursuing its interests. Many of the 14 members of the Lima Group have their own reasons to want to resolve the crises that are spilling over Venezuela’s borders.

The incident occurred ahead of a visit to Latin America by US Vice President Mike Pence© GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP JOE RAEDLEVice President Mike Pence.

“It’s hard to say how much US efforts to diplomatically isolate Venezuela have been successful versus, say, the efforts of the Lima Group,” Polga said. “However, it certainly appears that diplomacy is working at changing some countries’ positions.”

The 19 votes in favour of the resolution on Tuesday exceeded the 18-vote threshold to adopt it but were less than the 24 votes – two-thirds of the OAS’ 35 members – needed for a suspension.

“Yes, there were the votes to pass the resolution, but not the votes to approve the suspension, and that, from my point of view, is a defeat for the United States and its foreign policy,” a diplomatic source told EFE, pointing to Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s calls for suspension.

And while a path to suspending Venezuela is now open, it’s not certain its members want to take it. (In 2017, Venezuela said it would quit the OAS, but for procedural reasons that takes two years.)

“Several of the 19 countries that voted to hold a debate over Venezuela’s suspension do not actually support pulling the trigger, let alone the countries that abstained,” Ramsey said. “My understanding is that the perspective among several delegations is that it is better to keep Venezuela within the fold and use existing pressure mechanisms in the OAS than to kick them out [and] lose any leverage.”

“Pressure is important,” Ramsey added, “but it’s also important that channels of communication and diplomatic engagement exist.”

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