PRESIDENT TRUMP so far has exhibited a deep disinterest in — and even some contempt for — U.S. human rights advocacy. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, pointedly declined to acknowledge major offenses by U.S. allies such as the Philippines and Saudi Arabia during his confirmation hearing, or even the well-documented war crimes committed by Russia and Syria in Aleppo. So it was encouraging that the president and the State Department acted last week in support of political prisoners and democracy in a country where both badly need outside support: Venezuela.
Mr. Trump met at the White House with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, and sent out a tweet saying he should be “out of prison immediately.” State, meanwhile, finally cleared the way for the sanctioning of two senior Venezuelan officials accused of drug trafficking, including recently appointed Vice President Tareck El Aissami. On Saturday, the third anniversary of Mr. López’s arrest, a State Department statement expressed “dismay and concern” about more than 100 political prisoners, including Mr. López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, and called for “respect for the rule of law, the freedom of the press . . . and the restoration of a democratic process that reflects the will of the Venezuelan people.”
Punishing corrupt Venezuelan leaders and standing up for moderate, nonviolent opponents such as Mr. López ought to be a no-brainer for the United States, given Venezuela’s catastrophic decline, anti-American agenda and increasing isolation in the region. But the Obama administration shied from taking action, citing ongoing negotiations between the regime of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition. In fact, it has been obvious for months that the talks were going nowhere. The administration’s caution may have had more to do with avoiding offense to the regime’s last supporter — the Castro regime in Cuba — with which President Barack Obama was pursuing what he saw as a legacy-making detente.
Mr. Trump, who has promised a tougher line toward Havana, suffers from no such constraint; nor does Mr. Tillerson, who led ExxonMobil when it severed its once-extensive relationship with the oil-rich country. Last week’s long-overdue sanctions were easy to justify: Mr. El Aissami has been implicated in the trafficking of cocaine from Venezuelan military air bases, and his installation as vice president positions him to take over the country if Mr. Maduro is ousted. It’s no wonder a bipartisan group of 34 members of Congress urged Mr. Trump this month to act against Mr. El Aissami and other senior officials, who are vulnerable to U.S. action because of their holdings of U.S. real estate and bank accounts.
The administration ought to follow up with more sanctions, including against generals involved in profiteering from Venezuela’s desperate shortages of food and imprisoning opposition leaders. It should lobby at the Organization of American States for action against the Maduro regime under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Most important, it should show resolve about human rights in nations that are not so easy to oppose. The Philippines and Saudi Arabia would be good places to start.