President Trump, put more pressure on Venezuela, but the right way

The Trump administration, European and Latin American countries are threatening to step up sanctions on Venezuela after Sunday’s fraud-ridden gubernatorial elections. But they’re doing it the wrong way, each one separately.


I was among those who, until recently, believed that U.S. and European sanctions should be limited to sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his top aides. In other words, go after their hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in foreign banks, and after their properties in Miami or Madrid.

But what happened Sunday was so outrageous that it is now clear that more international pressure will be needed to get Maduro to allow a free election.

Amid a collapsing economy with a 1,000 percent annual inflation rate – the world’s highest – and polls showing that 80 percent of people want Maduro to go, the president claimed that his party had won 80 percent of the country’s governorships.

In addition to its usual tricks – using massive resources to back government candidates, censoring independent media and buying votes through food distribution programs – the Maduro regime physically prevented many people in opposition strongholds from casting their votes, and is likely to have tinkered with election results in closely disputed states.

In the 48 hours prior to the election, the regime-controlled National Election Council (CNE) abruptly announced it was changing the polling places for 700,000 voters. Many voters in opposition areas were sent to polling places in remote or dangerous neighborhoods, while others were not told where their new voting places would be.

Also at the last minute, the regime included on the ballots the names of opposition politicians who had been defeated in primary elections, which allowed the CNE to nullify at least 90,537 opposition votes. And at least 350,000 voters were intimidated or physically prevented from voting, the opposition MUD coalition said.

Following Maduro’s dubious claim that his party had won 18 of 23 governorships, and his previous refusal to recognize the opposition-controlled National Assembly, it has become clear that all avenues for an electoral solution to Venezuela’s crisis have been temporarily closed. New, broader diplomatic and economic sanctions against Venezuela’s ruling elite are needed to get Maduro to allow free elections in 2018 – when his term comes to an end – with independent electoral authorities and credible international observers.

But the problem is that the Trump administration, the European Union and Latin American countries don’t have a common agenda with clearly identified demands to put pressure on the Maduro regime.

President Donald Trump has imposed new targeted financial sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, such as freezing their assets in U.S. banks, and is cracking down on banks that buy Venezuela’s oil company bonds. Mexico, Colombia and Canada have vowed to impose similar steps, but it’s unclear whether Panama and Uruguay – two key offshore banking centers – have yet taken any such measures.

The European Union has threatened to impose its own economic sanctions on Venezuela. South America’s MERCOSUR trade union has already suspended Venezuela, and 12 Latin American countries – the so-called Lima group that includes Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia – demanded an “urgent” independent audit of the Oct. 15 electoral process.

But the lack of a multilateral strategy behind these sanctions diminishes their effectiveness. As former U.S. State Department Latin American affairs chief Roger Noriega told me, sanctions should be “coordinated, focused, targeted, intense and carried out in a steady way.”

Unfortunately, Trump – who has managed to antagonize virtually all U.S. allies by pulling out or attacking key trade, climate change and military agreements – is not in a good position to lead any international coalition to further isolate the Maduro regime. But he should try to do it, even if it’s behind the scenes. After the latest events, he may find growing support for a coordinated strategy to help restore democracy in Venezuela.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at