Puerto Rico between Trump administration sanctions against Venezuela
The 2016 US presidential election and the ensuing revelations about foreign interference in elections globally have raised new discussions on the intersection of economic relations and political interests between countries in the contexts of elections. Though many US based news networks remain focused on the ongoing Russia saga and the supposed influence of the Russian state on last year’s election, the Trump administration is seeking to influence the results of another country’s electoral process.
On July 26, the Trump administration sanctioned 13 current and former senior Venezuelan officials in advance of the country’s controversial elections for a new congress. Among those sanctioned were Elias Jaua, the education minister in the country, Justice Minister Nestor Reverol, and Tarek William Saab, the president of the Republican Moral Council and former confidant to the late Hugo Chavez. The Trump administration has warned that it is prepared to take more drastic economic measures if President Nicolás Maduro did not cancel a vote for a new congress.
Despite these warnings, on Sunday, July 31, the Maduro government in Venezuela went through with the controversial election. The election has been decried as illegitimate in the international community. The concern is that the election will create a congress sympathetic to the socialist regime in Venezuela and give the government vast powers to rewrite the constitution and ultimately replace the opposition-controlled National Assembly, leaving all branches of government under an authoritarian like control. Sunday’s vote saw at least 10 people die in what has been an extended period of political unrest for the South American country. Insisting that the vote would help right the political ship and restore peace, President Maduro struck a more combative tone in an address Sunday night saying of his political opponents, “Some of them will end up in cells facing justice, while others will end up in a psychiatric ward because they have shown clear signs of insanity…We must impose order.”
Having just signed sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea, new punitive actions from the Trump administration may be in order against Venezuela. Speculation about the extent of U.S action included a potential oil embargo levied against the country but the economic consequences of stopping oil exports from the country would have profound global impact, making that action unlikely. As of Monday, July 31, the U.S Treasury Department has issued a designation to freeze any of Maduro’s assets subject to U.S jurisdiction and cuts off contact between the president and U.S citizens. Such sanction against a personal leader’s assets is unusual but the Trump administration has ensured for now that it will stand by the anti-Maduro alliance in Venezuela and combat what it interprets to be “threats to democracy.”
The Trump administration’s efforts seem to contradict an earlier commitment to avoid the foreign democratization agendas of previous presidencies and they come at a transitory time in Latin American politics. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked, “pressuring countries on democracy and human rights creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” and yet the administration has jumped headfirst into the latin world’s political realm. By taking a strong stance against the Venezuelan election, the administration is siding with eight Latin American nations, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, which have denounced Venezuela’s use of force against civilian protesters.
The situation in Venezuela and the Trump administration’s concern with the country’s democratic affairs could have consequences for the US territory of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico recently held a plebiscite for statehood, and there seems to be support for more autonomy for the islands from Venezuela. During the campaign, Donald Trump said “The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.” This struck a measured tone on Puerto Rico but the recent appointment of Rafael Ramirez-Carreño, Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the UN as the president of the UN Special Committee on Decolonization calls into question how a more serious move by Puerto Rico for self determination than the June referendum will affect the Trump administration going forward. Carreno has said of the Puerto Rican vie for independence, “Independence is an inalienable right of peoples, self-determination is an inalienable right. That’s our position, and we work for that. We have nothing to gain, it’s something that we do for no interest of any kind, but as a position of principle. And I think that everywhere in the planet and in the countries, there is a greater need to fight for principles. And this is one of them.” Additionally, the recently released Oscar Lopez Rivera, an activist for Puerto Rican independence, pleaded with the US to “stop interfering in Venezuela, to stop using people and structures to reach countries and create a hostile environment with violence, and to have people lose because in the end it’s the people who lose.” This sentiment against US intervention in Latin American elections is echoed by the the Hostosian Independence Movement of Puerto Rico, MINH, and other organizations that have shown their support for the Venezuela’s National Constituent Assemby election and the Maduro regime.
The US sanction of the Venezuelan President may indicate a turning point in the US’ political engagement with Latin America and could prove telling should a more strident move for Puerto Rico independence be staged.