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The US may name Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. Here’s why that could backfire.

“A state-sponsorship designation is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel,” said an expert.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in New York City on July 28, 2015.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in New York City on July 28, 2015.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Trump administration is in discussions to label Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, according to two US officials.

It’s a move that would allow the US to place more sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro’s government and restrict aid to Venezuela. It would also severely escalate tensions between the two countries.

A State Department spokesperson wouldn’t confirm internal discussions, but said the administration was “concerned about the continued presence of foreign terrorist organizations in Latin America,” primarily the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist guerrilla group in Colombia.

Venezuela’s government is also known to have ties to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group, and many international drug traffickers.

Some experts say the proposed move is unnecessarily harsh. “A state-sponsorship designation is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel,” Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official who is now a professor at Dartmouth College, told me. “To use the designation simply to put pressure on an odious regime is generally a bad idea.”

The news, first reported by the Washington Post, would be the strongest move yet in President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign to impose serious penalties on Caracas. The administration says it wants Maduro’s increasingly autocratic regime to release roughly 340 political prisoners and become more democratic — or perhaps even fall. But by stopping aid to the long-suffering people of Venezuela due to the country’s economic collapse, it may actually backfire by turning the public against the US.

“The Trump administration’s saber-rattling plays right into the hands of this authoritarian regime,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told me, adding that it’s “substituting reckless bluster for real and tough diplomacy.”

The US has Venezuela in its crosshairs

Venezuela’s President Maduro has been heavily criticized for undermining democracy in his country since he assumed power in 2013.

Over the past few years, Maduro has imprisoned scores of his political opponents. He has cracked down on growing street protests with lethal force. He repeatedly postponed regional government elections in order to stave off threats to his party’s power. And last year, he held a rigged election for a special legislative body that supplanted the country’s parliament — the one branch of government that was controlled by the political opposition.

Trump has heavily criticized Maduro in the past, and at one point openly considered a military invasion to overthrow him. in September, the Trump administration placed sanctions on many of Maduro’s allies, like the first lady and members of the regime’s top ranks.

And on November 1, National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech in which he listed Venezuela among a “Troika of Tyranny” — three countries that the US firmly opposes in Latin America. “Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region,” Bolton said.

It’s possible — and somewhat likely — that naming Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism is considered “direct action” by the administration.

Venezuela does have ties to terrorists, but the move may backfire

The notion that Venezuela’s government has connections to terrorists doesn’t come out of left field.

Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert on Iranian terrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, told me that Caracas has longstanding ties to Hezbollah. The terrorist group had a base in the country, and the regime shares two joint banks with Iran that fund its and other operations.

The country is also a major throughway for narcotraffickers who move their products northward, Ottolenghi added. While he’s unsure that Venezuela has earned the designation of a state sponsor of terror, putting it on the list could prove useful in “breaking the back of the elites in power,” he said.

The problem, other analysts worry, is that giving Venezuela the designation means America will curtail its ability to help the millions of citizens suffering from disease and malnutrition under Maduro’s rule.

The US currently provides around $100 million in aid to the country, which is experiencing an economic crisis due to massive inflation of its currency and kleptocracy from elites. Millions have fled the country as refugees, many of them into Colombia, to escape the poor conditions.

“The Venezuelan people need humanitarian assistance,” says Fabiana Perera, an expert on Latin American politics at George Washington University. “Continuing to provide assistance and pressuring the regime to accept aid would be more useful to Venezuelans than the state sponsor of terrorism designation.”

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