The Trump administration is demonstrating willingness to ramp up pressure on Venezuela as the Organization of American States begins a new debate on what to do about the economic and humanitarian crisis in the South American country.
A month after the Trump administration issued sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of drug trafficking and money laundering, the U.S. government is working with other foreign leaders to increase international pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, including threatening to suspend the government from the United Nations-like OAS.
“We need to act with urgency and clarity of purpose for indeed, as the saying goes, the whole world is watching,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. “This is an important for the day for the OAS, which is fulfilling its responsibility to safeguard democracy.”
Fitzpatrick emphasized that the goal “is not immediate suspension,” but that it was time for the 34 member OAS to consider all available tools to help the people of Venezuela.
In an emotional three-plus hour debate on Venezuelan democracy during which one ambassador walked out and others threatened to do the same as Venezuelan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Samuel Moncada insulted those that had spoken against his government.
While no action was taken, the OAS debated whether the embattled Venezuelan government was fulfilling its democratic obligations under the group’s Inter-American Democratic Charter. Last year, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro issued a scathing 75-page report accusing Maduro’s government of repeatedly violating the group’s human rights and democracy standards.
On Tuesday, Almagro recommended that the OAS suspend Venezuela if it does not hold elections soon.
“We do not support any invasion,” Almagro said. “We want elections soon.”
The intensified U.S. push against Venezuela raises questions about the influence of new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has shared little about his vision for the hemisphere, but many wonder how decades of fighting the Venezuelan government as head of ExxonMobil has shaped his perspective.
In 2007, Tillerson was at the helm of the company when then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took control of billions of dollars worth of Exxon assets. Later in 2015, with Maduro as president, the two sides confronted each other again when ExxonMobil struck oil off the coast of neighboring Guyana in an area that Venezuela also claims.
Hours before the meeting, the State Department held a rare background briefing for U.S. and international journalists to share the administration’s perspective on the changing dynamics in the region and growing confidence that the region is ready to take stronger action against Venezuela.
“Venezuela has lost its blocking majority, if you will,” said the senior official. “The silence was deafening, quite frankly, yesterday after the Foreign Minister of Venezuela raced up to Washington to give a presentation yesterday, after the majority of the member states had called for today's meeting. Very little support in the room for what she said.”
For years, Venezuela has exercised disproportionate influence on the OAS, largely because many members receive subsidized oil under Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program. Maduro, a former foreign minister, has threatened that nations that oppose him could “go dry.”
This is not the first time the OAS has considered taking strong action against Venezuela. In June, the OAS’s permanent council held an emotional four-hour meeting without making a decision that revealed divisions among diplomats who favor pressuring Maduro to make accommodations to his opponents and those who believe such a move would violate Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Upping the pressure, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a strong warning to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti on Monday said that it would be difficult to protect them from possible cuts in U.S. aid if they fail to defend democracy when the Venezuelan government comes up for a possible sanctions vote at the OAS.
Rubio added that he’s been in touch with Trump and the presidents of Costa Rica and Honduras to win their support for Almagro’s proposal.
But Tuesday’s meeting also showed Venezuela’s continuing sway. While 21 countries voted to go forward with the debate, another 11 voted against it, and in the end no action was taken. OAS members rarely bring to a vote anything that doesn’t already have a consensus.