Caught in the White House transition this week from Reince Priebus to John Kelly: steep economic sanctions the U.S. threatened against Venezuela if President Nicolás Maduro rammed through his new constituent assembly in a Sunday vote denounced as fraudulent.
Kelly, a military general who used to head U.S. Southern Command in Miami, is intimately familiar with Venezuela’s tumult. And since being named chief of staff Friday, he’s taken a key role in shaping the Trump administration’s response to the South American country’s crisis, sources close to the White House said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has worked with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, the National Security Council, Priebus and now Kelly on Venezuela policy, said he felt reassured by Kelly’s Oval Office presence.
“We’re fortunate it worked out this way,” Rubio told the Miami Herald in an interview. “The president has Kelly next to him — not just a chief of staff who I believe will improve the performance of the White House, but someone who I believe understands Venezuela as well or better as anyone in the administration.”
Kelly’s involvement appears to be one of several reasons why the White House has taken its time before escalating penalties against Venezuela — not because Kelly opposes more sanctions, but because he wants to vet and weigh in on the administration’s plan.
Maduro announced late Wednesday his government intends to seat the new constituent assembly Friday, a watershed move expected to trigger further action by the U.S. and international community, which have condemned the violence-marred election and refused to recognize the new assembly.
The Trump administration has already threatened to punish all or some of the 545 assembly members, including Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and top socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello. Maduro himself was hit with financial sanctions Tuesday, making him only the fourth sitting head of state in the world targeted by the U.S.
But Trump has yet to order “strong and swift” economic action, as he promised ahead of Sunday’s election. That’s partly because of the reaction to how uniformly the international community rejected the results: Shortly afterward, the U.S. started getting signals from inside the Venezuelan government that some Maduro loyalists might want to deal, Rubio said.
Rubio warned of internal turmoil within Maduro’s government in a speech aired on independent Venezuelan news station Globovisión late Monday. He told the Herald the U.S. has gotten indications of divisions relayed through business interests and other countries.
“Almost immediately after that election happened, you started to hear this chatter, primarily through third countries,” he said. adding that some Venezuelan government leaders made indirect inquires about “how they can save themselves.”
“Politically speaking, if I were Nicolás Maduro, I would sleep with one eye open every night, wondering who the people around me are,” Rubio said.
What the U.S. wants is restoration of the democratic order — that is, for Venezuela not to install the constituent assembly and instead schedule free and fair regional elections pending since last year, presumably under a new independent electoral authority.
While Trump brass have called Maduro a dictator and the assembly illegitimate, State Department diplomats have also signaled willingness to dialogue, in what may be a good-cop, bad-cop routine whose effect has nevertheless been to somewhat confuse the administration’s message.
Rubio and administration leaders have an interest in arguing the sanctions they imposed are working. But sowing distrust among Venezuelan government ranks is exactly what the targeted individual sanctions were intended to do, said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University international relations and policy lecturer.
“That is very much their strategy, to raise the cost and risk for people to remain loyal to Maduro,” he said. “They haven’t quite triggered those defections that people are hoping for, but clearly it’s in the back of their minds. It becomes more effective if other countries do the same. Maduro probably didn’t have a bank account in the United States. He probably isn’t planning any U.S. travel any time soon. But he may be planning to go to Peru or Argentina or Mexico.”
The European Union condemned Sunday’s election after the company that provides Venezuela with its voting software and machines admitted the results had been tampered with. Britain withdrew families of Caracas diplomats. Colombia, Mexico and Panama have threatened sanctions. Spain is pushing for them. Peru isn’t ruling out breaking diplomatic relations.
Sabatini said the U.S. might not want to risk losing that hard-earned international support by seeking economic sanctions on its own. Other countries, for example, could limit Venezuelan oil imports and hurt Venezuela without causing the sort of unpredictable collapse a U.S. embargo would.
“In many ways that would have a lot bigger effect, demonstrating a larger international consensus,” he said. Otherwise, “the U.S. would be setting itself up to be the bogeyman. Not that they shouldn’t do it. I’m not one of these hand-wringers.... But there seems to be momentum in the region. The U.S. should probably step back.”
State-run television has spent the week blaming the U.S. for its “aggression” against Venezuela.
“Extreme Republican Right asked for intervention,” read an on-screen headline Thursday as the station showed a dubbed Fox News interview of Rubio.
“Trump administration intensifies offensive against Venezuelan government,” read another.
But in a sign of the international pressure coming from all fronts, the station couldn’t just limit itself to attacking the U.S.: It also had to deride governments of other countries, including Mexico and Peru.
That’s why the U.S. should keep targeting individuals and encouraging regional partners to do the same, said Moíses Naím, a former trade and economy minister in Venezuela now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He opposes a “generic” economic sanction that would unite Maduro and his allies — now being divided by individual sanctions — around a common foe.
“Tragically, Venezuela’s economic situation is going to deteriorate even further over the next few months. The shortages we’ve seen in basic products is going to worsen,” he said. “It’s clear to Venezuelans and to the rest of the world that the current situation is being driven by Caracas and Havana. They’re the ones responsible.
“Let’s make it clear that what’s coming next is their fault and nobody else’s. There is nothing Nicolás Maduro wants more than for Donald Trump to become an enemy of Venezuelans.”
What Kelly might recommend is unknown. Pence, who returned Thursday from a trip to Europe where he remained engaged on Venezuela, is also expected to take a decisive role. Sources close to the administration have said an outright oil ban is off the table for now, though the White House publicly says all options are still under consideration.
Stemming from his time at Southcom, Kelly has strong relationships with Colombia and other countries in the region worried about the number of people fleeing Venezuela — not just Colombia and Brazil, but also to Central America, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
Selee said it’s smart for Kelly to review any sanctions package to make sure it puts pressure on the Venezuelan government but doesn’t destroy the economy so that it will take years to recover.
“There really is this dance of trying to penalize the leaders, but not the larger society, that is increasingly choosing to leave of lack of opportunities,” Selee said. “If there was a sudden crisis there is a lot of concern in the neighborhood that it could get much worse quickly.”
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank that follows the region, said whether you agree with his priorities or not, Kelly understands the region better than anyone at a senior level in the Trump administration.
“He is somebody who would be a good judge of what the possible political fallout might be of pursuing different options.”