MADRID - Spain has assumed a pivotal role in pressuring Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to change his regime’s “barbaric” course, according to Spanish diplomats who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.
Venezuela’s crisis reached major dimensions last week as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans made an exodus to neighboring countries, escaping the hyperinflation, food shortages and rampant violence prevailing over what used to be South America’s wealthiest oil producer.
Spain has openly pushed for sanctions by the European Union that target Maduro and his top officials in a move that led to the expulsion of the Spanish ambassador and insults against Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Maduro called him a U.S. lackey.
Venezuelan state media reported that the measures restricting travel and business in Europe by seven top Venezuelan officials were hatched in discussions Rajoy held with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington last September.
The U.S. has placed sanctions on more than 20 individuals in Venezuela, including politicians and government contractors, since repression of opponents to the Maduro government intensified last July.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought up the possibility of placing an embargo on Venezuelan oil sales during a recent swing through Latin America. He even hinted the U.S. might welcome a military coup.
Rajoy’s predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, backed a coup against Maduro’s mentor, Hugo Chavez, when he was in power. But Spanish officials deny that anything similar is taking place now.
“Spain’s support for sanctions did not result from any consultation with Washington,” a Spanish foreign ministry official told VOA. “It’s strictly between Spain and the EU. Our main concern is the Venezuelan people and standing up for democratic principles.”
Spain will lobby for expanding the sanctions at an EU foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels where Venezuela is on the agenda, according to a Spanish diplomatic expert on Venezuela.
The source also said Spain has worked to isolate Venezuela among some Latin American governments, which excluded Maduro from a regional summit last week in Lima, Peru.
When EU sanctions were adopted in January, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said they were an “incentive to help negotiations” between Maduro and the opposition party, which were mediated by former socialist Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero.
Zapatero’s eagerness to seal an agreement has been criticized by opponents of Maduro, who say he tried to pressure them into participating in presidential elections scheduled for next April that are seen as loaded in Maduro’s favor.
“Zapatero went from being an impartial arbiter to acting as a lawyer for the regime,” said Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who escaped from his Venezuelan house arrest to Spain last December. He was personally received by Rajoy.
Spain’s ties with Venezuela run deep. Spaniards compose one of the country’s largest expatriate communities, numbering about 300,000. The Spanish oil company Repsol has invested more than $2 billion in Venezuela, and it continues operating oil and gas fields there.
But the leverage could go both ways. Venezuela appears to have some political influence with Spain’s mainstream socialist party PSOE, whose spokesmen criticized the news media for giving “too much” coverage to opposition protests at the time that Zapatero assumed his mediation role.
Venezuela also has contributed money to the far left group Podemos, which has been Spain’s third-largest political force and blocked a congressional resolution condemning Maduro’s power grab.
Podemos was joined in opposing the motion by the Catalan Leftist Republic party (ERC), one of the main pro-independence groups in Catalonia that may head the next regional government.
In an apparent tit for tat, Maduro has demanded the release of jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras and attacked Spain for trying to block an Oct. 1 referendum on Catalan independence.
Venezuelan state channels joined a Russian cyberoffensive promoting Catalan separatism through social media.
According to Spanish Defense Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal, 32 percent of robot social media accounts used to amplify the separatist movement were based in Venezuela and connected with Maduro’s ruling PSUV.
The head of the radical separatist Catalan Unity Party (CUP), Ana Gabriel, who is to appear in court next week to answer charges of rebellion, has been in Venezuela campaigning for Maduro.
The Spanish government is investigating funds linked to members of the Venezuelan government that were deposited in Andorra, an independent archdiocese bordering northern Spain.
But experts don’t expect relations between Madrid and Caracas to be radically altered by the growing tensions.
“We know that Maduro is taking Venezuela toward being another Cuba and is very close to achieving it,” a Spanish diplomatic analyst said. “But we will keep talking to Maduro the same way that we keep talking to Putin.”
Ledezma said he asked Rajoy to use his influence with Venezuela to open a corridor for humanitarian aid proposed by Venezuela’s neighbors.