The Trump Treasury Department’s move to impose sanctions on and to freeze the assets of a series of high-profile Venezuelan actors—including the country’s new vice president—is a welcome development. It has been a long time coming and follows years of investigation into the targets’ assets and activities related to the trafficking of narcotics. The alacrity with which the Trump Treasury Department acted against these officials, however, contrasts mightily with the Obama administration’s lethargy when it came to Venezuela. The sluggish pace at which the Obama White House moved to punish Venezuelan officials for violating international law and human rights will forever remain a stain on that administration.
On Tuesday, the United States sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and Samark Jose Lopez Bello, whom Treasury described as “El Aissami’s primary front man.” In a statement, Treasury alleged that El Aissami, formerly the governor of Aragua state, oversaw the shipment of drugs from Venezuelan air bases and ports overseas, bound for places like Mexico and the United States. “El Aissami also is linked to coordinating drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, as well as providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco,” the statement read. Zetas, Barrera Barrera, and Gonzalez Polanco were sanctioned by both the Obama and Trump administrations in 2008 and 2009.
So why did it take so long to include these officials in this latest round of sanctions? Presumably, the investigation into El Aissami and Lopez Bello’s connections to narcotics traffickers took several years to establish, but their ties to the abusive Maduro government in Venezuela (and, earlier, the late Hugo Chavez regime) have been long established. That association alone might have prompted the Obama administration to act against El Aissami and his henchman when the White House was belatedly punishing the Venezuelan government for ruthlessly putting down a nearly revolutionary rebellion in 2014.
The White House passed on what might have been the best opportunity the United States will have in years to dissolve the lingering remains of the Chavez regime in Caracas. In February of 2014, violence erupted on the streets of cities across Venezuela. Almost daily, social media was flooded with images of pro-government police and protesters clashing, opposition figures being swept up into vans and spirited off to prisons, and prominent Maduro critics killed in the fighting. Those violent protests regularly extended to Aragua state, where El Aissami presided over the equally violent response. A report commissioned for the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the 2014 disruptions explicitly cited Aragua police officers as having been implicated in extralegal violence. Yet, the Obama administration’s reaction to these once-in-a-generation conditions was glacially slow.
When Congress finally got around to considering legislation punishing Venezuelan officials in July of 2014, only then did the State Department issue travel restrictions on Venezuelans implicated in human rights abuses. Over one year after the violence erupted in Venezuela, the Obama administration designated conditions in the Bolivarian Republic a “national emergency,” providing the White House with authority to sanction individual Venezuelans. Some might defend the White House by contending that they were compelled to wait for Congress to act first. That fails to satisfy those who note that it took the White House almost three months from the time in which the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014” was passed to impose sanctions, and then on only 56 officials.
Beyond the occasional rhetorical flourish, Barack Obama and his administration appeared to take a dim view of democracy promotion in the form of supporting the aspirations of anti-authoritarian activists. From Tehran to Cairo to Caracas, the Obama White House was cautious to the point of paralysis when the moment came to support pro-democracy demonstrators. The Trump White House appears to have fewer reservations about using the tools at their disposal to constrain the world’s bad actors, even if this White House has yet to deploy those tools on behalf of the world’s freedom-seeking peoples.
The Trump administration may frame its targeting of narcotics traffickers as the strict pursuit of an “America First” foreign policy, but attacking the revenue streams for the cash-strapped socialists in Caracas has a dual purpose. This approach already represents an improvement on the Obama administration that the Trump White House would have no compunction about imposing sanctions on the representatives of a brutal and anti-republican regime like Venezuela’s.