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After slapping more sanctions on Maduro, Trump dangles a carrot

Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela delivers a speech at the United Nations during the General Assembly on September 26, 2018 in New York City.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech at the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2018, in New York City. Photo: Stephanie Keith via Getty Images

At the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, President Trump raised the possibility of meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: “I just want to see Venezuela straightened out," adding that Maduro “needs to act a lot more humanely” and reiterating that “all options are on the table.” Trump and Maduro ultimately did not hold a public meeting and the U.S. promised $48 million more to address the humanitarian crisis that Maduro’s dysfunctional authoritarian rule has caused, bringing total U.S. assistance to over $90 million.

The big picture: The Trump administration's policy toward Venezuela is torn between threatening and sanctioning the Maduro government and pledging aid to alleviate regional and human effects of the crisis. It remains uncertain whether Trump will continue to use the incentive of a meeting with the U.S. president to try to persuade Maduro — who has sought to speak with Trump before but been rebuffed — to change his behavior.

The background: Since 2016, the oil-rich country has been in a downward spiral, and international efforts to help have proven too little, too late. In tandem with the lack of hope for a political breakthrough, a surge in hyperinflation appears to be driving a wave of migration to northern South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. This has put the international community in damage-control mode.

Actions to address the root causes of the crisis include more U.S. sanctions on Maduro’s inner circle, Maduro's referral by six Western Hemisphere governments to the ICC for committing crimes against humanity, and calls for dialogue from Europe. Maduro’s backers in China, Cuba and Russia show no sign of dropping their support, though there is also no appetite for bailing him out. Frustration with stalemate has fueled calls for a multilateral humanitarian intervention, with the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro promoting this option.

Why it matters: Trump is scheduled to make his first visit to Latin America in November. Beyond vague mention of reinventing the Monroe Doctrine to counter China’s influence in Latin America, his administration has not developed a clear policy toward the region. Perhaps the Venezuela crisis will present another opportunity for Trump to apply his forceful persuasion playbook — a different approach from the current strategy of hammering away without an incentive for change.

Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s CLALS, an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliot School for International Affairs and the founder and CEO of Caracas Wire.

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