Opinion

Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but is importing ever more Venezuelan oil

There is a major inconsistency in President Trump’s stand on Venezuela: He talks tough – and even makes veiled threats of a military intervention in that country. But at the same time, he steadfastly refuses to cut U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil, which are the main source of income of Venezuela’s dictatorship.

In fact, the United States has been increasing purchases of Venezuelan oil recently. While U.S. oil imports from Venezuela had decreased in recent years, they have been rising since February and increased by 28 percent in September, according to the Refinitiv Eikon data firm.

What the United States buys accounts for up to 80 percent of Venezuela’s oil income. If the Trump administration drastically cut its oil imports, President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship – which already faces a 1 million percent annual inflation rate and widespread food and medicine shortages – would have a hard time surviving, some critics of the Maduro regime say.

So why doesn’t Trump reduce Venezuelan oil imports?

First, because U.S. refiners in the Gulf Coast oppose it, saying that it would drive up domestic gas prices and affect pro-Trump constituencies in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Trump would lose more votes in those states than he would gain among Venezuelan Americans in Florida, some advisors are telling him.

Second, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are focused on crippling Iran’s oil exports. Many in the White House think that causing a simultaneous collapse of both Iranian and Venezuelan oil exports would drive up world oil prices and hurt U.S. consumers, oil experts say.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, while Trump likes to talk tough on Venezuela to gain votes in Florida, he may fear producing a worse humanitarian crisis that would almost commit him to a military intervention there.

“If you break it, you buy it,” George David Banks, a former international energy and environment adviser to Trump, told the S&P Global Platts website. “The White House doesn’t want to own this crisis.”

Trump has stepped up the Obama administration’s individual sanctions against top officials of the Maduro regime and imposed sanctions on purchases of Venezuela’s debt. But “the Trump administration is more hesitant than ever” to impose oil sanctions, says the Platts report.

Supporters of reducing U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil reject the idea that such a move would aggravate the country’s humanitarian crisis without necessarily bringing down the Maduro regime. Accelerating the country’s collapse to force a regime change is the best option available, they argue.

And a cutback of Venezuelan oil imports would not necessarily give Maduro a propaganda victory by allowing him to play the victim of U.S. “imperialism.” Trump could simply reduce Venezuelan oil purchases without declaring an oil embargo or saying a word about it, they say.

But perhaps the strongest argument for a gradual U.S. cutback of oil purchases is that it would lead other countries to take the Trump administration seriously when it asks for international sanctions against Venezuela.

Many foreign officials ask: How can the Trump administration ask others to impose economic sanctions when the United States is Venezuela’s biggest trading partner, in effect, bankrolling the Maduro regime?

When I asked Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri in an interview last year what the international community should do to help restore democracy in Venezuela, he responded that the first step should be taken by the United States.

“If the United States really took a measure such as suspending oil purchases from Venezuela, the Maduro regime would have a serious financing problem,” Macri told me. He added that by cutting Venezuelan oil imports, “The United States could change things (in Venezuela) definitively.”

I’m not sure that drastically cutting U.S. oil purchases from Venezuela would be the best idea; it likely would come at a huge humanitarian cost. But this much is clear: If Trump wants other countries to step up sanctions against Venezuela, he, himself, should consider a gradual slowdown in U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil instead of sending more cash to the Maduro regime.

Andrés Oppenheimer is a Latin América correspondent. Send e-mail to: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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