CARACAS, Venezuela — With the clock winding down on his term, U.S. President Donald Trump shielded tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants from deportation Tuesday night, rewarding Venezuelan exiles who have been among his most loyal supporters and who fear losing the same privileged access to the White House during the Biden administration.
Trump signed an executive order deferring for 18 months the removal of more than 145,000 Venezuelans who were at risk of being sent back to their crisis-wracked homeland. He cited the “deteriorative condition” within Venezuela that constitutes a national security threat as the basis for his decision.
“America remains a beacon of hope and freedom for many, and now eligible Venezuelan nationals in the U.S. will receive much-needed temporary immigration relief,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, said in a statement praising the decision.
The last-minute reprieve — in sharp contrast to Trump’s hard-line immigration policies the past four years — capped a busy final day in office that also saw Trump issue a sweeping new round of financial sanctions targeting the alleged frontman of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and tighten controls to keep spying technology out of the hands of the Venezuelan military.
But ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, far greater attention was focused on the president-elect’s choice to be secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in Washington showed continued support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Blinken, in his first comments on Venezuela, said he would continue recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president and indicated he has no illusions of an eventual dialogue with Maduro, who he called a “brutal dictator.”
Still, the veteran diplomat expressed frustration with the results of current U.S. approach, which hasn’t shaken Maduro’s grip on power or led to free and fair elections. He said there is room for fine tuning sanctions and better coordination with allied nations to restore democracy to the crisis-stricken South American nation.
“The hard part is that for all these efforts, which I support, we obviously have not gotten the results that we need,” Blinken said.
The Trump administration was the first of now more than 50 countries in the world to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president shortly after the young lawmaker rose up to challenge Maduro’s rule two years ago. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo spoke Monday by phone with Guaidó, expressing his “personal respect and appreciation” to the opposition leader for his “commitment to the cause of freedom,” the State Department said in a statement.
Venezuela, a once wealthy oil-producing nation, has fallen into economic and political crisis in recent years that has seen a flood of more than 5 million residents flee a breakdown in public services and shortages including a lack of running water, electricity and gasoline.
Most have migrated to other parts of Latin America. But an estimated 350,000 are believed to reside in the U.S., and about 146,000 of them have no legal status, according to the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
More than 700 Venezuelans have been removed from the U.S. since 2018, while 11,000 more are under deportation proceedings, according to the TRAC immigration database of Syracuse University.
For years, Venezuelans, with bipartisan support, have been clamoring for so-called temporary protected status to no effect as Trump has tried to end the program for migrants from six other countries, including Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Trump’s order provides similar protections, including protection from deportation and the right to work, but was still met by resistance by some Democrats who want Biden to introduce legislation providing additional safeguards.
“Our community will not be fooled and used for political games anymore,” said Leopoldo Martinez, the first Venezuela-born member of the Democratic National Committee.
In the latest round of sanctions trying to pressure Maduro out, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three individuals, 14 businesses and six ships. All are accused of helping the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA evade earlier U.S. sanctions designed to stop the president from profiting from crude sales.
The sanctions target people and businesses linked to Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman who U.S. officials say is the frontman for Maduro responsible for everything from the importation of food to the export of the nation’s crude. Saab was arrested on a U.S. warrant last year in the African nation of Cape Verde on what Maduro says was an official mission to Iran to purchase supplies. He is now fighting extradition to Miami, where he faces corruption charges.
Maduro’s government blasted the sanctions as another act of “imperialist aggression” aimed at destroying Venezuela’s ability to meet its own needs through oil sales after four years of attacks from the Trump administration.
The U.S. Department of Commerce also announced measures Tuesday to block U.S. technology from being used by military intelligence in nations including China, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela.
Such stiff measures have become an almost routine feature of the outgoing administration’s hard-line approach to Venezuela, which has proven popular with exile Latino voters in Florida.