Andres Oppenheimer

An oil embargo is the wrong approach. Here’s what Trump should do in Venezuela

In this Feb. 18, 2015 photo, storage tanks stand in a PDVSA state-run oil company crude oil complex near El Tigre, a town located within Venezuela's oil belt.
In this Feb. 18, 2015 photo, storage tanks stand in a PDVSA state-run oil company crude oil complex near El Tigre, a town located within Venezuela's oil belt. AP

President Donald Trump has raised eyebrows with a threat to impose “strong and swift economic actions” against Venezuela, which a senior administration official said could include an oil embargo on that country. But there are other U.S. actions that would be much smarter.

Trump’s threat to impose unilateral U.S. actions came in a written statement on July 17, a day after more than 7 million Venezuelans voted in an opposition-organized referendum to oppose President Nicolás Maduro’s plan to rewrite the Constitution, and replace it with a Cuba-style charter.

The vote was part of the country’s opposition symbolic straw-poll asking voters to reject government plans to overhaul the constitution amid months of escalating and lethal tensions.

A day after the vote, a senior Trump administration official told reporters that “all options are on the table,” including cuts in U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil.

Venezuela, which is nearly bankrupt after 18 years of disastrous economic policies, depends on oil for 95 percent of its export income. And the bulk of that goes to the United States, which buys 700,000 oil barrels a day from the South America country.

But well-placed Venezuelan opposition sources tell me that cutting oil imports or suspending U.S. exports of light oils to Venezuela — which the country uses to mix with its own heavy crudes — would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people, who are already suffering from widespread food and medicine shortages.

The action also would give Maduro and his narco-military elite a huge propaganda victory, by allowing them to claim — as Cuba has been doing for five decades — that Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is caused by “U.S. aggression.” And it would make it much more difficult to impose international diplomatic sanctions against the Maduro regime.

“If there is an oil embargo, we would be giving Maduro an argument to say that the crisis is all U.S. imperialism’s fault,” said opposition leader Carlos Vecchio, political coordinator of the Voluntad Popular party led by Leopoldo López. “What’s just as bad: It would break the growing international consensus we have today against Maduro’s dictatorship.”

Instead of imposing a unilateral U.S. oil embargo, Trump should take the following incremental measures:

▪ Order top White House officials and the State Department to get actively involved in regional and international efforts to impose collective diplomatic sanctions on the Maduro regime.

That would mean avoiding U.S. mistakes such as the embarrassing absence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from the recent Organization of American States meeting of foreign ministers in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. Despite the support of 20 major nations, the meeting failed to issue a condemnation of Venezuela because of the opposition of three small Caribbean islands, which could have been persuaded by the U.S. Secretary of State if he had been there, Latin American diplomats say.

▪ Impose additional targeted personal sanctions against top officials of the Maduro regime. Trump, like former President Barack Obama before him, has imposed travel sanctions and frozen the U.S. assets of several top officials, including Vice President Tarek El Aissami. But Trump could slap personal sanctions against others, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, and a powerful congressman, Diosdado Cabello.

▪ Expose the Venezuelan regime’s massive corruption by releasing U.S. Department of Justice information about the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. real estate and bank accounts that U.S. officials have said came from top Venezuelan officials. Why not release all that information as soon as possible?

▪ Most importantly, the Trump administration should condition future U.S. oil contracts with Venezuela on the approval of the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition after a landslide victory in the 2015 elections.

That would make Maduro think twice before imposing a new Cuba-style constitution to abolish the democratically elected National Assembly. And it would help empower the National Assembly. Other countries could follow the U.S. example and condition their dealings with Maduro on the approval of Venezuela’s legitimate opposition-majority congress.

My conclusion: All of these measures, especially the last one, would be much more effective than a unilateral U.S. oil embargo. Cutting U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil would significantly hurt the courageous Venezuelan people who are protesting on the streets, help Maduro play the victim and break the growing international consensus that Maduro should go.

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