When it comes to sanctioning Venezuela, the Trump administration has not dragged its feet.
In February, the White House slapped a sanction on the country's vice president, allegedly because of his involvement in drug trafficking. In May, officials did the same to members of the country's Supreme Court as it attempted to strip power from the opposition-led National Assembly.
President Trump said these policies were designed to punish the country's increasingly autocratic leaders. Venezuela has “been unbelievably poorly run for a long period of time. And hopefully that will change,” he said at a news conference.
That change has not materialized so far. For months, thousands of activists have taken to the streets to decry President Nicolás Maduro's efforts to dismantle the country's democracy. More than 100 people have died, most of them at the hands of the army or police officials.
Now the United States is poised to tighten sanctions even further. It's a response to Maduro's latest maneuver: He is endeavoring to replace the National Assembly with a new “Constituent Assembly,” which could rewrite the constitution — presumably in Maduro's favor. An election will be held at the end of the month.
President Trump called Maduro a “bad leader” and “aspiring dictator,” warning that Maduro's actions would bring about a “strong and swift economic” response. What that will look like, though, is still unclear.
Bloomberg News has reported that the White House is considering measures that would target a couple of top officials who have committed human rights violations.
Experts say that probably won't have much of an effect. “Up until now, the [American] sanctions have been practically non-confrontational,” says Jorge Salazar-Carrillo, an economics professor at Florida International University who studies the Venezuelan economy. “The United States has really looked the other way.”
What might work? An American ban on buying Venezuelan oil, which is the third-largest oil supplier to the United States. (The United States is Venezuela's biggest buyer.) That would make it nearly impossible for the government to continue to function.
Experts say that if the United States wants Maduro to step down, it needs to impose this kind of broad penalty. “Sanctions on oil exports … would be much more explosive” than targeted strikes against particular officials, Edward Glossop, a Latin America specialist with London-based think tank Capital Economics, told CNN.
According to Bloomberg, some in the White House are calling for that. But the big risk is that lots of innocent people would be hurt. “There is no real indication that the U.S. is willing to go as far as sanctioning the oil industry because it's not clear who that hurts,” said Glossop. “It might hasten the end of Maduro's regime but would also definitely make the humanitarian crisis worse in the near-term at least.”