Part of Trump’s effect has been to alter the conversation on Venezuela from one of what to do, to that of what will not be allowed. Vice President Mike Pence is on a tour of South America, and during his first stop in Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos said “every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention.” But there is also the somewhat counterintuitive line that says Trump may have helped. Alejandro Velasco, an associate professor of modern Latin America at New York University, told me that by saying something fairly outrageous Latin American leaders can easily come out against Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the region.
“They see in Pence as an ally, and the U.S. as an ally,” Velasco told me, “but by being able to beat Trump like piñata they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can perpetuate this idea of an independence, that we are not subservient to Trump or the U.S.”
Finding a balance in U.S. policy will be difficult because Venezuelans might be hypersensitive to any overly aggressive U.S. actions. The experts I spoke with dismissed the thought of military intervention, and Geoff Ramsey, an associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me the idea of an invasion is beyond extreme. “It’s important to separate Trump’s recent remarks from the works the State Department has done,” Ramsey said. Much of the talk at the U.S. State Department so far, Ramsey said, has been focused on sanctions. And, at the most extreme level, a possible oil embargo, because Venezuela is still one of the top suppliers of oil to the U.S.
The Trump administration could also continue sanctioning high-level Maduro supporters, a continuation of the Obama administration’s tactics. These are done under executive order, and are specific to individuals. The sanctions block any property subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and prevents them from doing business with U.S. companies. Sanctions are somewhat limited in their impact, because in many cases top officials have already moved their business and accounts away from the U.S. What could be more effective, is if Latin American countries—like Panama—joined.
A step up from sanctions would be if the U.S. banned exports to Venezuela. Mostly, this has to do with oil, because though Venezuela has some of the largest reserves in the world, it depends on the U.S. for refined oil and light crude—some 120,000 barrels each day. About half that is used by the Venezuelan people, and the other is mixed with heavier oils and often re-exported back to the U.S. This gets at one of the most drastic options (short of boots on ground). What’s left of Venezuela’s economy depends heavily on the 2.1 million barrels of oil it exports each day. The U.S. accounts for one-third of that, and banning all Venezuelan crude imports would likely finish off what remains of the country’s broken economy and kill its moribund oil industry. This is sometimes called the “nuclear option” because it would not only devastate the Maduro government, it would equally ruin the powerful and the poor, supporters and the opposition. A move this drastic would likely strengthen Maduro, because it feeds into the historic narrative set up by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.