‘Opening salvo’: Trump’s policy toward Venezuela may be taking a hardline turn

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President Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Many countries have, over the past few weeks, taken a “wait and see” approach to relations with the US government under President Donald Trump, perhaps none more so than Venezuela.

Venezuela’s relations with the US have been contentious for much of the last 20 years, but Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appears to hold out some hope ties could be better with Trump.

In recent days, however, that hope seems to be fading.

Venezuela has been close to Russia under Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has spoken highly of, and this week, when the US slapped sanctions on Maduro’s vice president, Venezuela’s response appeared to avoid mentioning Trump by name, perhaps in an effort to keep open the possibility of improved dealings.

Those sanctions, and the case supporting them, were developed under the Obama administration, but their implementation was held up during the final months his presidency.

“Those sanctions were going to be imposed when Obama was in power, but State Department told them to hold back because they wanted to see if they could establish a dialogue” between Maduro’s government and the political opposition, said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, echoing a point a former Obama administration official made to Fox News.

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, right, and Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami, shake hands during a meeting with governors in Caracas, Venezuela, February 14, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Deploying these sanctions now “can be seen as the opening salvo of the Trump administration in dealing with Latin America’s deepest crisis,” Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, DC-based policy group Inter-American Dialogue, told The New York Times.

“It is hard to imagine that, with this decision, Washington will now be included to offer many carrots to the increasingly authoritarian regime.”

That impression is bolstered by Trump’s recent actions.

During a call on Wednesday, Trump and Argentine President Mauricio Macri shared mutual “concern” over the situation in Venezuela.

The call lasted just five minutes, but the two leaders talked broadly about Latin America and about “Venezuela in particular.”

The center-right Macri took office in Argentina in late 2015, and his government has clashed with Maduro’s Socialist administration.

Those tensions have seen Venezuela suspended from Mercosur, a South American trading bloc.

Just hours after Trump spoke with Macri, he met in the Oval Office with Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo Lopez, a hardline Venezuelan opposition leader jailed on trumped-up charges related to weeks of deadly anti-government protests in Venezuela in 2014.

At the conclusion of the meeting, which Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also attended, Trump tweeted, “Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately,” including a photo of the group.

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US President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Sen. Marco Rubio with Venezuelan opposition leader Lilian Tintori, February 15, 2017. Twitter/@realDonaldTrump

Tintori is not the first Venezuelan opposition figure to visit the Oval Office, but Trump’s statement after the meeting is a departure from the typically muted posture the US government took toward Venezuela under Obama.

The Venezuela government condemned the statement, invoking the usual refrains of US interference.

“The Bolivarian Republic [of] Venezuela rejects the intrusion and aggression of [US President] @realDonaldTrump [who intends] to give orders to our homeland,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tweeted in response to Trump. “It is lamentable that lobbies and Miami mafias in complicity with the violent Venezuelan opposition impose on @realDonaldTrump policies against Venezuela.”

While Trump’s broader approach to Venezuela, and Latin America in general, remains unclear, his seeming endorsement of the country’s political opposition may amount to little.

Many in Venezuela and abroad support Lopez’s release, and Maduro currently commands the approval of only about 20% of the public. But Trump is a widely disliked figure in the region. His support may not inspire many of Lopez’s backers or bring more people to the opposition’s ranks. (It may also further solidify support within the government for Maduro.)

Nor are reprimands from Trump likely to cut Venezuela off from its neighbours and partners.

“Despite its standing in Mercosur, the Venezuelan government isn’t isolated,” Tim Gill, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University focused on Venezuela’s foreign relations, told Business Insider, adding:

“It recently solidified relations with China and Russia, establishing dozens of new agreements, and, when claims recently emerged that Venezuela was behind on its oil shipments to China, the Chinese government defended its relationship with the country. Maduro can also count on regional relations with the same allies its had over the past decade, namely Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.”

Trump has taken a hardline on Venezuela since the latter days of his campaign. While the members of his transition team focused on Latin America suggest that hardline will continue, the substance of Trump’s position toward the the country, like many other policies, remains to be seen.

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