As South Florida lawmakers praised President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader as the country’s de facto president, some are urging the administration to go further.
“I went to the White House yesterday and talked to the president about what to do in Venezuela,” Sen. Rick Scott said on Wednesday. “[Nicolás] Maduro’s clearly a terrorist. We need to declare Venezuela as a terrorist state. It clearly is.”
Designating Venezuela as a state sponsor of terror would trigger sweeping economic sanctions and put strict limitations on U.S. citizens doing business with a country that boasts the largest oil reserves in the world. Only Iran, Syria, North Korea and Sudan are currently designated as state sponsors of terror by the United States.
The list of sanctions, according to the State Department, includes:
▪ A ban on arms-related exports and sales.
▪ A 30-day congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism.
▪ Prohibitions on economic assistance, and
▪ Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
A potential ban on Venezuelan oil imports could be part of a sanctions package, though oil sanctions can be separate from sanctions imposed as part of designating a country a state sponsor of terror.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the White House and State Department must consider whether there is enough evidence to make the designation and if declaring Venezuela as a sponsor of terror helps to achieve the ultimate goal of reestablishing democracy. He argued that Venezuela’s connections to Iran and the ongoing presence of Hezbollah in the country, along with Caracas’ supposed ties to the left-wing Colombian militant group ELN, could be enough evidence, but it’s unclear if declaring Venezuela a terrorism sponsor will help put the country on a path to democracy.
“The designation of a country as a state sponsor of terrorism is something that has been used very sparingly by the U.S.,” Ottolenghi said. “We haven’t designated Turkey or Qatar despite the fact that they harbor terror networks for Hamas. We haven’t designated Lebanon despite the fact that Lebanon harbors Hezbollah and allows Hezbollah to be a part of its government.”
Ottolenghi said the U.S. should be careful about adding the terrorism designation as a tool to simply apply pressure to Caracas. And declaring the designation without significant international support would blunt the economic effects from U.S. sanctions.
“It really depends if other countries are willing to follow on the substance and consequences of a designation,” Ottolenghi said. “The benchmark is quite high. It took Iran to engage in some very egregious actions of international terrorism to end up on that list.”
Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to Venezuela under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said Venezuela’s actions are enough to warrant the designation and that declaring the country a state sponsor of terror would “lead to a more humanitarian outcome for the people of Venezuela.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if sanctions on the government were accompanied by offers of more humanitarian aid directly to the people,” Reich said, adding that the U.S. government could work with approved non-governmental organizations and religious institutions to deliver aid directly to the Venezuelan people without handing resources to Maduro-led institutions.
“I haven’t taken a poll but the Venezuelan diaspora that I have spoken with on Spanish-language radio and television in Miami are very hardline and want the United States to use all means necessary to remove Maduro from power because they consider this particular government the reason why they are not living in their own country,” Reich said. “They are very disappointed that the U.S. government has not taken that step.”
Sen. Marco Rubio has previously said Venezuela should be on the terrorism sponsor list.
“The United States must use all available tools to protect the American homeland and our people from the Venezuelan dictatorship’s egregious support for terrorism and narco-trafficking in Venezuela,” Rubio said in a September 2018 statement.
Other countries, including Cuba and Libya, have previously been on the state sponsor of terror list. Cuba was removed in 2015 as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to restore diplomatic ties with Havana. Libya was removed from the list in 2007 after it renounced harboring and funding of various terrorist groups from around the world.
“I think this is something that is being discussed openly in the administration. It shows a real desire to paint Venezuela as a security threat, not just to Venezuelan people but to U.S. allies in the region,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official in the Obama administration and now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington. “Venezuela doesn’t point nukes to Tallahassee, but it supports unrest in the Western Hemisphere.”
Farnsworth said Wednesday’s decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s de facto leader over Maduro potentially complicates a terrorism designation. If imposed sanctions cripple Venezuela’s economy even more, the path to free and fair elections could be tougher for Guaidó and U.S. policymakers who want to restore democracy.
“Once you’ve named a country a state sponsor of terrorism,” Farnsworth said, “the challenge is how do you unwind that?”