Four Comments on Venezuela’s Vice President being Placed on the OFAC Kingpin List

David Smilde 

Yesterday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and an alleged confidante were being placed the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s list of drug-trafficking kingpins, resulting in a freezing of assets and their ability to travel to the US. Here are a couple of comments.

·      I originally did not think El Aissami’s designation should be seen as a policy change by the Trump Administration. The investigation of El Aissami has been in the works for a long time, and I suspected the case just got to the point that it was ripe. After the 2015 executive order rolling out sanctions and naming Venezuela as a national security threat was repudiated in the region, the Obama Administration focused less on sanctions and more on a variety of judicial procedures to pressure the Maduro government. So adding El Aissami to the OFAC list represented continuity more than a break.

However, now I think it is indeed an “opening salvo” of the Trump Administration’s Venezuela policy, as Michael Shifter suggested. Fox News quoted a former Obama Administration official who suggested that the naming of El Aissami was held up under Obama precisely because it was thought it could interfere with the Vatican-led dialogue between the government and the opposition. This suggests that yesterday it was unblocked by officials because, on their assessment, the time was right.

And today, new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin held a Whitehouse press conference suggesting that these sanctions are meant by Trump to be a signal to the Venezuelan people that the US government stands with them.

·      The content of the reaction from the Maduro government has been what one would expect: denials of any wrong-doing, suggestions that this an imperialist ploy, and repudiations of a presumed violation of sovereignty. However, conspicuously absent has been any mention of Trump by name.

The background of this is that there has been a lot anticipation in the Maduro government that given Trump´s “America first” stance and his friendship with Putin, the Trump administration would effectively leave Venezuela alone. So far Maduro and others have resisted criticizing Trump directly, presumably to keep this possibility alive.

·      As usual, supporters of this OFAC designation are working with breezy hydraulic metaphors of “putting pressure” on Venezuelan officials which will presumably lead them to democratize through unspecified mechanisms. Looked at a little more carefully, it is hard to imagine just how putting under existential threat, a person who currently holds significant power, could get him to cooperate with a democratic transition. From El Aissami’s perspective, a return of fair elections to Venezuela would surely put the opposition in power and likely see him extradited to the United States. One’s starting assumption must be that he will use all the levers of power to prevent that from happening. Chavismo still has the executive branch, the Supreme Court, the Armed Forces, the police forces, the state oil company and the allegiance of 20 percent of the population—including core supporters and government employees. Put differently, while Chavismo is not in position to win a fair election, it has more than it needs to prevent one from happening.

While U.S. officials don´t seem to understand the impact of the “pressure” they put on Venezuelan officials, Maduro certainly does. He has made a point of promoting officials who have been put on some sort of US blacklist. In August 2016, Gen. Nestor Reverol was named Minister of Interior and Justice a day after his indictment was sealed in August. Gen. Benavides was named as head of the National Guard after being placed on a sanctions list in March 2015. Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) Director, Gen. Gustavo González López, was appointed immediately after being targeted for U.S. sanctions. Maduro has effectively put Venezuela´s security apparatus in the hands of individuals who are on some sort of US blacklist, because he has no doubts they will remain loyal and fight until the end.

At this point it is hard to imagine how any sort of democratic transition can occur without a process of transitional justice.

·      To be clear, I am not saying that the international community should not play a role in addressing the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela. As I have noted previously, the international community needs to respond vigorously but intelligently. For the United States, this should mean strong emphasis on multilateral engagement, preferably working with existing institutions and regional partners, rather than reliance on unilateral U.S. sanctions.

While the Vatican-facilitated dialogue appears to have failed, there are other options, including a resurgent debate over the application of the Democratic Charter in the Organization of American States (OAS), led by Secretary General Luis Almagro. While the Maduro government railed against a similar OAS effort in 2016, it devoted a great deal of energy to attempting to block debate over democracy in Venezuela at all, a bid that ultimately failed. Now, in the wake of the indefinite suspension of the opposition recall referendum, one could expect a more robust reaction from fellow OAS member states.

(So far I have been interviewed by the New York Times, Reuters and NPR about this case. While I really liked John Otis´s NPR story there was a miscommunication between us on one point. I do not think there is currently a process of negotiation between the Maduro government and opposition. As we have covered on the blog, there has been no significant dialogue since November. However, I do think that this move pretty much ends what hope there was for significant dialogue between Chavismo and the opposition in the foreseeable future.)