Trump, Varela Discuss Venezuela
President Trump and his Panamanian counterpart Juan Carlos Varela discussed regional security issues, including organized crime and deteriorating conditions in Venezeula, during a telephone call Sunday afternoon.
The call came just days after Mr. Trump urged Venezuela to immediately release jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, whom he called “political prisoner.”
“President Trump and President Varela also discussed Venezuela, including the importance of encouraging respect for democratic norms and processes in that country,” the White House said in a statement released Sunday night.
President Varela announced on Twitter Sunday afternoon that he received a call from Mr. Trump and that they “talked about excellent bilateral relationship on economic, security, and regional topics.” Mr. Varela did not mention Venezuela.
Mr. Varela added that he agreed to meetings of high-level officials ahead of his visit to Washington, “which I will do at his invitation.” Neither president said when the visit would take place.
Mr. Trump sent “fraternal greetings to the Panamanian people,” according to Mr. Varela, and “recognized and congratulated” Panama on the progress of various projects in the country.
“The two leaders reaffirmed the strong partnership between the United States and Panama and committed to continue engagement on key security issues, including transnational organized crime and counternarcotics efforts,” the White House Press Office said.
The presidents last spoke by telephone on Nov. 16 when Mr. Varela called then President-elect Trump to congratulate on his electoral victory and to “welcome him to public life.”
Trump Takes On Venezuela
Venezuela’s economic crisis is expected to worsen this year, as shortages of food and consumer goods show no signs of abating. The South American country’s economy contracted by 18.6 percent and its inflation hit 800 percent in 2016, according to Reuters.
Food shortages in Venezuela have become so acute that an estimated 75 percent of Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 pounds. And the country is so broke that it is unable to export oil, its principal source of income.
As Venezuela’s economic and political conditions continue to worsen, the Trump administration has stepped up pressure against the country and President Nicolás Maduro.
On Feb. 13, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah and his associate Samark Jose Lopez Bello for drug trafficking and laundering money through companies in the British Virign Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela.
Two days later, Mr. Trump posed for a photo at the Oval Office with Liliana Tintori, the wife of the jailed opposition leader, and tweeted, “Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately.”
A day after Mr. Trump called for Mr. López’s release, Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice upheld his conviction and sentence which are widely seen as politically motivated. Mr. López was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2015 for allegedly inciting violent demonstrations that left 43 people dead in February 2014.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday reiterated Mr. Trump’s call for the release of Mr. López and urged Venezuela to release more than 100 political prisoners.
“The United States reiterates its dismay and concern about these arrests, and other actions taken by the Venezuelan government to criminalize dissent and deny its citizens the benefits of democracy. We call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience,” Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson, said in a press release.
In response, Mr. Maduro said Thursday that he doesn’t “want problems with the Trump administration” and that Venezuela desires “respectful relations [with the U.S.] in the context of peace and equality.”
His comments came a day after Venezuela’s National Telecommunications Commission pulled the plug on CNN en Español for broadcasting content that allegedly constituted “direct attacks aganist the peace and democratic stability of the Venezuelan nation.”
Panama Warms to Venezuela
After the February 2014 demonstrations, for which Mr. López and others remain in jail, Mr. Maduro abruptly severed diplomatic relations with Panama, which had called for an intervention by the Organization of American States (OAS).
Mr. Maduro accused then-Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and his government of being a “lackey” of the United States and of attempting to intervene in Venezuela.
Mr. Maduro restored full diplomatic ties with Panama on the day of Mr. Varela’s inauguration, Jul. 1, 2014.
In August 2015, Mr. Maduro closed Venezeula’s border with Colombia, triggering a mass exodus of as many as 10,000 Colombians and another 1,100 who Colombia said were forcefully deported. The closure of the frontier, Mr. Maduro claimed, was aimed at stemming cross-border smuggling of cheap diesel and gasoline from Venezuela.
Colombia asked the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States to convene a full meeting of all foreign ministers of the member states to address what it called a “humanitarian situation.”
Mr. Maduro, who had an ongoing spat with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and resorted in some cases to name-calling, opposed any intervention by the regional body.
When the council met on Aug. 31 at its headquarters in Washington, to consider Colombia’s request, Panama abstained and tilted the vote in Venezuela’s favor.
Colombia lost its bid for OAS involvement by one vote after 17 countries voted in favor of the proposal, five voted against, 11 abstained, and one was absent.
María Ángela Holguín, Colombia’s foreign minister, said she was surprised by Panama’s abstention after the Varela administration had assured her of its support. In an interview with Caracol Radio, Ms. Holguín alleged that Mr. Maduro called Panama just moments before the vote to ask for an abstention and instead mediate a meeting between Colombia and Venezuela.
It was not clear how Ms. Holguín knew of such a phone call or its content.