- President Donald Trump has been criticised for taking a soft approach to authoritarian leaders in other countries.
- But his administration has made aggressive moves to censure the Venezuelan government, adding more sanctions on Monday.
- The approach to Venezuela is motivated by the severity of the crisis facing the country, Trump administration officials said.
The Trump administration announced a new round of sanctions on Venezuela on Monday, further limiting government officials there from selling debt and other assets “at fire-sale prices at the expense of the Venezuelan people,” a senior administration official said.
The new restrictions come hours after a presidential election that President Nicolas Maduro was expected to win through illegitimate means and which the US said it would not recognise before the first ballot was cast.
President Donald Trump’s stance on Venezuela and its embattled president has appeared at odds with his attitude toward the leaders of other authoritarian regimes and his administration’s response to disputed elections in those countries.
In April 2017, Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a referendum that expanded Erdogan’s powers, differing from the State Department, which cited international observers’ reports of election irregularities and called on Turkey to respect the rights of its citizens.
Some leaders have been reluctant to offer Putin similar compliments, given the state’s control of much of the media in Russia as well as restrictions on opposition candidates. Election monitors said the most recent contest was “overly controlled” and “lacked genuine competition.” (President Barack Obama congratulated Putin after the latter’s 2012 election victory, though his administration also publicly expressed concerns about that vote.)
A few days later, when asked whether Russia’s election was free and fair, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We’re focused on our elections. We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate.”
“What we do know is Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate,” she added at the time. “We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections.”
Asked Monday about the seeming disparity between Trump’s approach to the election in Venezuela and elections under similar conditions elsewhere, senior administration officials pointed to the intensity of the economic and political turmoil in the South American country as a distinguishing feature.
“The region has never seen a kleptocracy like this,” the official said. “We’ve never seen a country as wealthy – in terms of natural resources and in human capital – as Venezuela is, driven into such an economic death spiral so quickly by such a small group of individuals determined to enrich themselves at the expense of millions of people.”
“The humanitarian suffering in this country is on a scale that we really don’t see in other places. The exodus of the migrants is something paralleling Syria at this stage,” the official added, referring to the masses of Venezuelan migrants fleeing to neighbouring countries.
“The effect on a close ally of the United States, Colombia, is enormous and is threatening to drag that country into the abyss from an economic standpoint as well,” the official said. “So this is a true catastrophe in every sense of the word, within the region.”
The US is not the only country that has reproved Maduro and his government.
The Lima Group – made up of 14 countries in Latin America –rebuked the Maduro government over the election when it was announced in January and said on Monday that it did not recognise Sunday’s vote as legitimate.
The US has reportedly offered lawyers and policy experts to help other Latin American countries draft similar measures.
Venezuela experts have warned that sanctions themselves are unlikely to force Maduro out and cautioned that harsher sanctions – such as ones against the oil industry on which the country is heavily reliant – could only cause additional pain for the Venezuelans.
“If you added up the 12 nations in the Lima Group and the United States together, it’s about 95% of the hemisphere,” another senior administration official said on Monday. “So everybody is truly together on this, and it’s a unity in the hemisphere, frankly, that is almost unprecedented in approaching a crisis of democracy.”
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