Andres Oppenheimer

President Trump, don’t give Venezuela’s dictator what he really wants during your first trip to Latin America

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been uninvited from the Summit of the Americas in Peru. But he says that he will go anyway.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been uninvited from the Summit of the Americas in Peru. But he says that he will go anyway. AP

When President Donald Trump makes his first trip to Latin America on April 13 to meet with leaders from throughout the region at the Summit of the Americas, he risks making a big mistake — coming across as the leading advocate of sanctions against the Venezuelan regime.

That’s exactly what Venezuela’s dictator Nicolás Maduro wants: to see Trump — who, according to polls, is the most unpopular U.S. president in Latin America in recent memory — become the champion of international pressure against the Venezuelan government.

If Trump becomes Maduro’s most vocal critic at the summit, the autocrat will use that as new ammunition for his claims that Venezuela’s humanitarian disaster is the result of alleged U.S. aggression, rather than of his disastrous regime.

The April 13-14 Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, will be critical for regional efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela among other things because it will take place shortly before Venezuela’s sham election scheduled for May 20.

The summit’s official theme will be the region’s battle against corruption. Ironically, it comes as Peru — the host country — is trying to emerge from its latest corruption-related political crisis. Former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned under pressure when he was about to be impeached on corruption allegations on March 21.

Peru’s new president, Martin Vizcarra, has confirmed that the summit will go ahead as planned and has maintained his predecessor’s decision not to invite Maduro, who nevertheless has vowed to show up at the meeting “rain or shine.”

From what I hear from diplomatic sources and Venezuelan opposition leaders, the summit will consider a statement expressing “grave concern” for the situation in Venezuela and calling for stronger, broader sanctions against the Maduro regime.

But the statement is likely to be approved as a summit side-declaration by the United States, Mexico, Brazil and other countries, rather than as part of the summit’s final declaration, which must be approved by consensus. Already, Cuba, Bolivia and other countries have said that they will oppose any condemnation of the Maduro regime.

Venezuelan opposition leaders are asking participating democracies to include the following points in the summit’s likely side-declaration on Venezuela:

▪ A pledge not to accept the results of Venezuela’s fraudulent May 20 election. Maduro, who is running for reelection, has, among other things, banned opposition leaders and leading opposition parties from participating.

▪ A joint commitment to step up individual sanctions against top Venezuelan officials. The United States and Canada have already imposed asset seizures and visa sanctions against top officials in the regime, but most Latin American countries have yet to follow.

▪ A plan to set up an international support fund for Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, Brazil and other countries. More than 2.5 million Venezuelans are believed to have fled the country in recent years.

Whether these and other measures are approved will be critical for Venezuela’s future, because time may be running in Maduro’s favor. The summit will be the best — and, perhaps, last — chance for Latin America to put serious pressure on Maduro to restore democracy in Venezuela.

In the coming months, there will be elections in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, which could change the region’s political map. In Mexico, for instance, a victory by leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — who is leading in the polls — in the July 1 elections would almost certainly result in a less critical stance against the Maduro regime.

If Trump really cares about Venezuela, and isn’t just trying to score political points at home, he should resist the temptation to place himself center stage in the Venezuelan crisis.

That would only help feed Maduro’s narrative that Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is the result of a U.S. vs. Venezuela confrontation, rather than what it really is — the product of one of the most corrupt, inept and repressive dictatorships in Latin America’s recent history, which has literally destroyed the oil-rich country.

Trump should accompany, perhaps even lead from behind, but never become the leader of the region’s efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. That would be a propaganda godsend for Venezuela’s dictator.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera