The Trump administration is offering up lawyers and policy experts to Latin American governments to help them write new laws to make it easier to sanction Venezuelan officials and industries, according to U.S. sources familiar with the plans.
The international community has been generally supportive of Washington’s efforts to force democratic change in Venezuela, but most Latin American leaders have told U.S. officials they don’t have the same legal frameworks to follow suit with their own sanctions.
“They don’t have the authority,” one senior administration official told McClatchy. “So what we really have to do is help these countries write laws that give them jurisdiction to carry out these kind of sanctions if they choose to.”
The White House is turning up the pressure on Latin American and Caribbean allies to take action against Venezuela, whose economic and humanitarian crisis will be the biggest topic of conversation at next week’s Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. It will be Trump’s first visit to the region as president.
His administration has a fine line to walk as it tries to bring allies along to force change in Venezuela without giving critics an opportunity to accuse Washington of interventionism.
Publicly, U.S. officials are asking for governments to do what they can to support U.S. efforts. But privately they're pressing harder, bringing ambassadors together in Washington or dispatching diplomats across the region, to encourage allies to reform their laws aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
They’re urging Latin American leaders to join the United States, Canada and European allies who have worked together to starve the oil-dependent Caracas government of desperately needed cash.
The senior administration official wouldn’t say which countries the United States is pressing, but said the effort is modeled on past work by previous administrations to help allies draft laws that would help them prosecute foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. In 2014, former Obama Administration Attorney General Eric Holder dispatched lawyers to North Africa and the Middle East to work with policymakers as anxiety spread around the world that some of those people would return to their home countries to attempt terrorist attacks.
It’s not uncommon for the United States to extend its legislative hand to other nations.
The Treasury Department said its Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes works with partner countries on a number of issues, including sanctions implementation. A Treasury official also cited Treasury’s work helping countries comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions relating to the prevention of terrorism and terrorist financing and recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body that sets standards for combating money laundering and terrorist financing.
“Treasury also engages, when requested by foreign partners, to counter an array of threats to global security and the international financial system, including from Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, narcotics trafficking, and transnational organized crime,” a Treasury official said.
The United States has helped Central American governments write asset forfeiture laws to allow the governments to seize the property of the accused even before they're convicted of a crime.
Venezuela will be the top issue at next week Summit of the Americas. According to the United Nations, an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country in search of food, medicine and opportunity. More than 15 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean have taken in displaced Venezuelans.
“Countries in the Americas have a responsibility to work together to address the humanitarian crisis that’s been created by the Maduro regime in Venezuela,” said another senior administration official. “This has now become in our view a regional crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing into neighboring countries.”
The United States has slapped sanctions on more than 20 current and former Venezuelan government officials in recent months, including on Maduro. The White House has prohibited U.S. banks from purchasing new Venezuelan debt, a deep blow to the country's finances.
The White House, National Security Council, State Department and Treasury Department are studying yet more options to help drive Maduro from office, including prohibiting any Venezuelan oil being sold in the United States.
There have been increasing signs that the region is ready to take stronger action.
Last month, Panama’s Economic and Finance Ministry issued a warning to the nation’s banks that Maduro along with more than 50 Venezuelan nationals are considered “high risk” for laundering money and financing terrorism.
Peru has led the so-called Lima Group, which includes Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and others and has publicly demanded that Maduro allow free elections and release political prisoners.
While some governments have stepped up, others have not, said Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush.
Reich called it “inexplicable” that the United States has had to “prod” Latin Americans government to take more action.
“The fact is that the Latin American countries have been shamefully silent on Venezuela,” Reich said. “The Europeans are much farther away and much less affected by what happens in Venezuela and have done more than the Latin American countries.”
Trump has brought up Venezuela at almost every meeting with leaders of the hemisphere, sometimes even before they were able sit down. He is expected to do the same in Lima.
Senior advisers cautioned that Trump himself is unlikely to push the legislative assistance with other heads of state. Those conversations will be happening on the sidelines with senior and mid-level staffers.
“These conversations are happening at the working level,” the senior administration official said. “At the high level, it’s just the president saying, you have to get strong on this issue.”