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White House Ramping Up Pressure Against Maduro

Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela's National Assembly, smiles as he speaks during a gathering in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 16, 2019.

The Trump administration is putting "all options on the table" to pressure Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro government as the White House considers whether to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's legitimate head of state.

Guaido is president of the National Assembly, Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislative body.

"We have a range of options in our diplomatic, political and economic toolbox," a senior administration official told VOA. "Frankly, we haven't even scratched the surface of where we can go."

The options include implementing an oil embargo and putting the country on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

However, the official said that military action, something President Donald Trump hinted at in 2017, was not one of those options.

FILE - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds a copy of the National Constitution while he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 9, 2019.
FILE - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds a copy of the National Constitution while he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 9, 2019.

The Trump administration has placed a series of sanctions on the Maduro government and is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions on the country's military and vital oil industry.

An oil embargo would be devastating to Venezuela, as oil accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings and 25 percent of its gross domestic product.

Maduro or Guaido?

Since Maduro's Jan. 10 inauguration, 19 countries on the Organization of American States' permanent council, including the United States, have voted to not recognize Maduro's new term.

In a statement, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the U.S. does not recognize "Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro's illegitimate claim to power."

After Guaido announced he was willing to step in as interim president, Luis Almagro, president of the OAS, tweeted his support.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly officially declared Maduro a "usurper" to trigger a constitutional mechanism that would allow Guaido as the head of the assembly to take over the country's leadership.

Some Venezuelan experts are urging the international community to recognize Guaido as the legitimate interim president.

Once they do, "governments, companies and international organizations will be able to begin channeling aid and contracts through the National Assembly," said Moises Rendon, associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group.

Rendon added that this would "strike a monumental blow to the Maduro regime," as international aid is a major source of its income.

But other analysts are warning that recognizing Guaido may not be the best option at this stage.

"Guaido and the National Assembly are carefully threading the needle and not trying to play all their cards at once," said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. "Ham-fisted efforts by international allies to force the situation will short-circuit the process."

Smilde urged the administration to coordinate its strategy with Guaido and the National Assembly, and "not seek to pre-empt it."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said he had spoken by phone Tuesday with Guaido to express the administration's support for the National Assembly as the "only legitimate democratic body in the country."

According to a readout of the call from the vice president's office, Pence "encouraged Mr. Guaido to build unity among political groups, and pledged continued support from the United States until democracy is restored."

Maduro 'illegitimate'

Since Maduro won another term in office last May in an election that was widely considered fraudulent, his government has been confronted with international condemnation and a growing list of sanctions.

"A concerted attempt by the international community to force Maduro from office by challenging his legitimacy may help Venezuelans get their country back," Rendon said.

On top of pressing sanctions, Rendon said, the international community can challenge Maduro's right to continue in office by reducing or cutting diplomatic ties, prohibiting "further international agreements with the Maduro regime" and, "in the event of illicit activities, preparing for detention and prosecution."

FILE - People wait in line to buy bread in Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2018.
FILE - People wait in line to buy bread in Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2018.

The U.S. has accused Maduro's government of crimes, including narco-trafficking, and has labeled Maduro a dictator who has implemented failed policies that triggered the country's worst economic crisis.

Maduro contends he is the target of a U.S.-led "economic war" aimed at forcing him out of office.

Support from U.S. Congress

The Venezuelan opposition is receiving support from U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has urged that the U.S. officially recognize Guaido.

On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Florida, introduced the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, which would allow Venezuelan nationals to become eligible for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. That status would grant them work authorization and shield them from deportation.

Other Democrats in Congress, including Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of Florida, are also pushing for tougher actions against Maduro. In the coming weeks, they plan to introduce a series of bills targeting weapons exports to Venezuela and providing humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people.