Andres Oppenheimer

What Trump should do about Venezuela’s drift toward a full-blown dictatorship

President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony on May 2, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony on May 2, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. AP

President Trump has remained surprisingly silent about the recent events in Venezuela, which is drifting into a full-blown dictatorship under his watch. It's time he does something to help restore democracy there.

In recent weeks, Venezuela's president, Nicolás Maduro, has curtailed some of the last remaining powers of the opposition-majority National Assembly, announced that he will give out 500,000 rifles to pro-government civilian militias, refused to hold long overdue regional elections and banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for the next 15 years.

Now, elections have been indefinitely postponed, and virtually all of the country's top opposition leaders are either in jail, or under house arrest, or banned from running for office for many years.

To make things worse, on May 1, amid massive anti-government protests that have already left 29 dead and more than 500 wounded, Maduro announced that he will convene a constitutional convention of "workers, farmers and indigenous" people to draft a new constitution. In other words, he plans to impose a Cuban-styled constitution that in effect would abolish all democratic institutions.

What should Trump do? Lashing out more often against Maduro won't help. Trump has a reputation of being a pathological liar — he claims among many other things that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the recent U.S. elections — and anything he says against Maduro could backfire.

Some Washington insiders want Trump to cut off U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil, which are his country's biggest source of income. But that may not be a good idea either.

Cutting off U.S. oil imports from Venezuela or imposing sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned Citgo gas company — which contributed $500,000 to Trump's inaugural ceremony — has been an option that has been considered since the George W. Bush administration. It was always discarded because of fears, among other things, that it would drive up international oil prices and hurt the U.S. economy.

Although those circumstances have changed — there is a glut in world oil markets today — it would give Maduro political ammunition to proclaim himself a victim of U.S. "imperialism." And it could end up hurting the Venezuelan people more than Venezuela's dictatorship.

Others in Washington are calling for targeted sanctions against more Venezuelan officials who violate human rights or are involved in drug trafficking. Former President Obama had imposed visa sanctions and the freezing of U.S. assets of more than a dozen Venezuelan officials — whose names were in most cases not released — in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

And the Trump administration in February announced sanctions for drug trafficking and money laundering against Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami. Trump's executive decree followed a years-long Justice Department investigation.

Michael Fitzpatrick, a senior State Department official, told reporters on Tuesday that the Trump administration is considering new individual sanctions against Venezuelan officials, and that the El Aissami investigation has already uncovered "hundreds of millions of dollars" in the U.S. financial system. He added that he did not know the exact amount, nor other details.

My opinion: The most effective thing Trump could do to help the Venezuelan opposition maintain its momentum on the streets would be to order the U.S. Justice Department to release the details of these "hundreds of millions of dollars" owned by El Aissami and other top Venezuelan officials.

Generally, the Justice Department doesn't like to release such details because it wants to save them for the prosecution process. But these are no ordinary circumstances: naming and shaming the members of the corrupt civilian-military gang that has hijacked the Venezuelan government is key to efforts to keep up the pressure and restore democracy in Venezuela.

People familiar with U.S. government rules tell me that it can be done. While under current law, Trump cannot legally order the Justice Department to publicize details about sanctions against Venezuelan officials in cases of visa-oriented U.S. sanctions, he can do it in drug or money laundering-related investigations.

It is critical that Trump does it. Facts and figures speak louder than words. There will be nothing better to expose Maduro's corrupt dictatorship than releasing details of the frozen U.S. bank accounts and pictures of the mansions that top Venezuelan officials own in Miami and other U.S. cities.

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