Notes on U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

Timothy M. Gill

Although U.S.-Venezuelan relations did not find their way onto the debate stage in the US presidential elections, we can think about how Trump might approach Venezuela based on his foreign policy statements. These statements have fluctuated between, on the one hand, challenging particular governments and aggressively targeting foreign threats, and, on the other hand, an “America First” policy wherein the U.S. would scale back its international commitments and focus on domestic issues.

Candidate Trump expressed criticism of the Venezuelan government on the campaign trail. Specifically, he stated that the next president “must stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere, and I will stand with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.“ He has also asserted that while “Venezuela is a beautiful, vibrant, and resource-rich country … [it] has been run into the ground by socialists.”

Trump has more clearly articulated his views on U.S.-Cuban relations, which might provide us with some indication of where U.S.-Venezuelan relations might be headed. He has generally promised to roll back normalization, more specifically stating that he will reverse the Obama administration’s executive orders “unless the Castro Regime meets our demands. Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people.”

We might, then, expect Trump to take a harsher position on Venezuela than the Obama administration. While the latter indeed sanctioned several Venezuelan state officials and issued an executive order that labeled the country an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy” of the U.S., it has also sought to normalize relations between the two countries. On several recent occasions, high-ranking U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon, have met with President Maduro.

In addition to measures taken by the Obama administration, some have argued that it is quite likely that Trump will impose additional sanctions on a greater number of Venezuelan state elites. David Smilde has asserted that “populist leaders like Donald Trump usually find it helpful to create a foreign threat as the villain in their conspiracy theories” and that with “a weak and discredited government, Venezuela would be a very likely object of Donald Trump’s attention.” Luis Salamanca has also argued that we “can expect increased sanctions … [and] more international pressure in general” from the U.S. on Venezuela.

Some have also suggested that a Trump administration might wield additional tools of influence in Venezuela. Daniel Barker Flores, for instance, has pointed out that Trump has promised to place U.S. security interests above all else, and suggests we not underestimate his nationalism.

President Obama recently spoke in Peru with several of his Latin American counterparts at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. During a question-and-answer session, he said he does not “anticipate major changes in policy from the new administration.” Obama also voiced a thinly veiled criticism of Venezuela, observing that “you’re seeing some countries that are going backward rather than forwards … You can maintain order for a while with repressive nondemocratic governance, but it will rot from within. Over time, those governments fail and those economies fail.”

Much of the Trump administration’s policy towards Venezuela may hinge on his choice for Secretary of State. Although it is not yet clear who Trump will pick, several names have surfaced as potential choices, including former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Massachusetts Governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Indeed, all three individuals have openly criticized the Venezuelan government. In 2006, for instance, Ambassador Bolton strongly, and successfully, urged UN members to block Venezuela from attaining a UN Security Council seat. And, despite working for a law firm that lobbied on behalf of Citgo – the U.S.-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned PDVSA, former Mayor Giuliani has also criticized Venezuela. Romney, for his part, has openly deemed Venezuela a national security threat to the U.S.; stated, as early as 2007, that former President Chávez possessed dictatorial ambitions; and, in 2012, referred to Chávez as “a buffoon” that the U.S. should challenge, in part, through free trade agreements with regional partners.

In contrast with these hints of an escalating conflict though, Trump has also advocated for an “America First” policy that would prioritize domestic issues, such as trade and immigration control. In doing so, Trump has criticized the U.S. for acting as “the world’s policeman” and a “big stupid bully … systematically ripped off by everybody.” Keeping with this view, Trump has emphasized working with some current U.S. foes under his new administration.

Trump has indicated, for example, that he wants to repair and strengthen relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who currently has a tenuous relationship with the U.S. In addition, Trump has even expressed respect for the Russian strongman. Thomas Wright, for instance, has pointed out how Trump, in fact, possesses “a long-standing admiration for authoritarian strongmen” and repressive policies. These have included, for example, the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors and policies under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Russia, of course, remains a key Venezuelan ally beyond the Latin American region. The two countries greatly increased trade under former President Chávez, who purchased large amounts of military vehicles and weapons from the Russian government, and even conducted military exercises alongside the Russian navy. As the Obama administration leaves office, Maduro indeed may try to leverage its relationship with Russia to improve relations between the U.S. and Venezuela.

While President Maduro has, on several occasions, referred to President-Elect Trump in less than flattering terms, the Venezuelan government quickly congratulated Trump on his victory, and Maduro asked Secretary of State John Kerry to pass on his personal congratulations during a phone call between Maduro and Kerry. During a recent televised broadcast, President Maduro further stated that he hopes that under the government of “Donald Trump, Venezuela will have better relations … and overcome … grave errors committed by George W. Bush which were sadly deepened by Obama.”

What is clear is that President Maduro strongly desires positive relations with the U.S. Despite the small favorability boosts that he has received from lambasting the U.S. Empire in the wake of renewed sanctions and airing out critical remarks from U.S. state elites, Maduro seems to believe that working relations with the U.S. will provide him with some sort of international legitimacy amid the political-economic crisis facing the country.

To be sure, Trump appears more concerned with China, Mexico, Russia, and the Middle East. However, as the crisis intensifies in Venezuela, there can be no doubt that Venezuela will come to his attention sooner than later. Given Trump’s own rhetoric on the campaign trail and his disposition towards Cuba, most seem to believe that Trump will approach Venezuela in a more aggressive manner than the Obama administration. However, as he has changed his tone on several issues throughout the course of the campaign and has encouraged working relations between the U.S. and Russia, Trump’s approach is difficult to predict.