Andres Oppenheimer

To help restore democracy in Venezuela, Trump must stop harassing Mexico

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) listens to Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray during a joint press conference in Mexico City on February 23, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) listens to Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray during a joint press conference in Mexico City on February 23, 2017. AFP/Getty Images

Many Venezuelan opposition leaders and exiles are hopeful that President Trump will take a tough line on Venezuela, and help restore democracy in that country. But I'm skeptical, for a reason that doesn't have anything to do with Venezuela.

Granted, Trump has in recent days received the wife of Venezuela's imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and the Trump administration on Feb. 13 announced the freezing Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami's assets in the United States, accusing him of being a narco "kingpin."

And there are many other things that Trump could do unilaterally — if he wanted — against Venezuela's authoritarian ruler Nicolas Maduro.

Trump could, for instance, order the U.S. Justice Department to name the top Venezuelan government officials who received $98 million in bribes admittedly paid to that country's government by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

The payments were made between 2006 and 2015 during the regimes of late President Hugo Chavez and Maduro, according to U.S. officials who — alongside Brazilian and Swiss prosecutors — participated in the investigation.

Trump could also decide to further reduce U.S. oil imports from Venezuela, although this has been extensively studied — and dismissed — by every U.S. administration in the past 17 years. Many say it's technically complicated, and could drive up oil prices.

But, according to what I'm hearing from senior diplomats in Washington and Latin America, no unilateral U.S. sanctions would bring down the Maduro regime. In fact, short of military actions such as the U.S. invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989,) no go-it-alone U.S. measures have in recent decades toppled any Latin American dictatorship, they say.

The United States has only been able to oust Latin American authoritarian leaders in recent times when it acted jointly with major Latin American countries.

In the case of Maduro's Venezuela, if Washington goes it alone, that would only help Maduro cast himself as a victim of “U.S. imperialism” and get even more help from China, Russia and Latin American countries.

Senior diplomats across the region agree that the most effective way to force a free election in Venezuela is through collective diplomatic sanctions from the 34 member countries of the Organization of American States.

The OAS Democratic Charter provides for such diplomatic sanctions if a majority of member countries support them. And OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro told me in a recent interview that he is about to issue a new call for activating the Democratic Charter.

Trouble is, most Latin American countries are reluctant to cast a vote alongside the Trump administration as long as the U.S. president continues with what they see as his insane Mexico bashing.

Trump's anti-immigration, anti-trade, anti-Mexican tirades — as when he said that Mexico is sending mostly criminals, rapists and "bad hombres" to the United States — have made him so unpopular in Latin America that he has become politically radioactive. No Latin American president wants to cast a vote against Venezuela and risk to be painted at home as a Trump puppet.

My opinion: Trump has a golden opportunity to help bring about democracy in Venezuela because most major Latin American countries are increasingly critical of the Maduro regime.

Over the past 18 months, voters in Argentina, Brazil and Peru elected pro-democracy presidents, and the people of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador defeated their countries' authoritarian rulers in legislative elections, plebiscites and other electoral challenges.

If Trump would only stop harassing Mexico with his absurd demands that the Mexican government pay for a $25 billion border wall that would be a total waste of money anyway — 40 percent of undocumented immigrants come by plane and overstay their visas, and illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped so much that Asians have now become the largest bloc of undocumented newcomers to the U.S. — he would have more support from Latin America than any of his recent predecessors.

The only way to help restore democracy in Venezuela will be through collective diplomatic sanctions from OAS member countries, but that will not happen as long as Trump continues insulting Mexico. And for now, Trump seems more eager to please anti-Mexican xenophobes within his base than in bringing back democracy to Venezuela. 

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español