Viewpoints

If Trump doesn’t want to be seen as a charlatan, this is what he needs to do about Venezuela

Dear President Donald Trump,

If you are as concerned about Venezuela as you say you are, there are several concrete actions you can take to help restore democracy there. I’ll cite just five.

 
Opinion

First, instruct Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to make an all-out diplomatic effort to pass a resolution at the 34-country Organization of American States stating that Western Hemisphere countries will not recognize the results of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s sham April 22 election.

While OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has said repeatedly that the Venezuelan election will be a joke – because Maduro has prohibited top opposition leaders from running and refuses to allow credible international observers, among other reasons – it’s just his personal opinion. It does not carry the political weight of an international organization’s resolutions.

The OAS was close to passing a resolution condemning Venezuela at its June 2017 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, but fell three votes short of doing so. The result was largely because of the Trump administration’s failure to put full diplomatic force behind the proposal. Tillerson didn’t even attend the meeting, sending a lower-level U.S. official instead.

Earlier this week, the 14-country Group of Lima – which includes Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru – disinvited Maduro from the April 13 Summit of the Americas, which the Venezuelan dictator was planning to attend. That was a step forward to further isolate Maduro.

But the Group of Lima is an ad hoc assortment of like-minded countries, which does not carry the institutional weight of the OAS.

Mr. President, the only way to build a case for applying the OAS Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan regime – which could lead to serious regional sanctions against Venezuela – would be passing a resolution at the OAS declaring Maduro’s April 22 election illegitimate. Well-placed Latin American diplomats tell me there is a new OAS draft resolution supported by, among others, Mexico, Brazil, Canada and Argentina, to that effect.

Will your administration make a serious effort to help pass it? So far, Tillerson has not attended one single OAS foreign ministers’ meeting on Venezuela. That sends a message to the diplomatic community that the Trump administration’s talk about Venezuela is pure posturing for domestic political consumption.

Second, Mr. President, attend the upcoming April 13 Summit of the Americas in Lima. If you don’t go, you will be the first U.S. president to skip this hemisphere-wide summit since they started in Miami in 1994. Furthermore, Latin Americans will remember your “shithole countries” remark about El Salvador and Haiti, and your frequent racist remarks about Mexico. They will conclude that you look down on the region and that you really don’t care about Venezuela.

Third, try to convince one or more Latin American countries to ask for a formal investigation of Maduro’s crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s prosecutor recently opened a preliminary probe against Maduro, but would have to start a formal investigation if any member country asks for it.

Fourth, ask for the release of all U.S. law enforcement information on the Odebrecht construction firm’s bribes to top Venezuelan officials. The Justice Department disclosed toward the end of the Obama administration that Odebrecht had paid $98 million in bribes to top Venezuelan officials. But we still don’t know who in Venezuela got those bribes, and you haven’t helped make that public.

Fifth, put an end to the bizarre rumors circulating in Venezuela that you are about to launch a military strike to topple Maduro. Such talk gives the Maduro regime precious propaganda ammunition and weakens Venezuela’s domestic opposition.

You haven’t even managed a consensus within your government to take serious actions against U.S. CITGO oil imports from Venezuela. Talking about military action is irresponsible – and counter-productive.

Summing up, Mr. President, you deserve credit for expanding the Obama administration’s individual sanctions against top Venezuelan officials. But, for all your tough talk about Venezuela, you should turn words into diplomatic actions, or you will be perceived as a charlatan.

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

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