Viewpoints on Energy, Geopolitics, and Civilization
Javier Corrales / NYTimes:How Trump
Is Getting in His Own Way in Venezuela
Ramon Espinosa / AP
May Day parade in Revolution Square in Havana this month. Mr. Trump has been
pressuring Cuba over its support for the Maduro government in Venezuela
The U.S. once played a constructive role in helping to unite allies for democracy.
Now Trumpism is hindering that.
AMHERST, Mass. — President Trump's call for regime change in Venezuela is eliciting criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. The far left is denouncing imperialism; the far right is complaining about hesitancy.
This debate overlooks what is perhaps a more serious problem with America's new approach to Venezuela: It's shedding the very allies that the country's democratic forces need, while strengthening international opponents. In other words, coalition mismanagement.
The Hands Off Venezuela! camp contends that the United States is acting in its own interest and that intervention would worsen conditions on the ground. In contrast, conservatives contend that United States policy lacks teeth. By not intervening more forcefully, the United States is leaving democratic forces on the ground disarmed and vulnerable to repression.
Both sides overstate their case. It took significant human rights violations, coupled with persistent lobbying by the opposition and international allies, to shift United States policy toward Venezuela from ambivalence to a firm commitment to democracy. The Trump administration is basing policy on facts for once; they've come to understand that when a semi-failed narco state is left unchecked, as isolationists would want, citizens and neighbors pay the price.
Likewise, conservatives may be downplaying the power of the new United States approach. The Trump administration has introduced sanctions that have cut off the Nicolás Maduro regime from a critical source of financing, and it has offered sanctions relief to military officers who betray the dictator. While mass defections have yet to materialize, for the first time since he took power, some officers are abandoning him in favor of the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó. Defections are the first step toward a democratic transition, and while they have been far fewer than Mr. Trump would have wanted, they have been more significant than conservatives have conceded.
Lost in the left-right debate is how Mr. Trump is failing to manage the international actors involved in the Venezuelan standoff. Regime change requires effective management of these actors. This includes the group of more than 50 countries that support democracy in Venezuela. The United States, to its credit, played a constructive role in helping the Venezuelan opposition forge this coalition of allies. But now the United States is adopting policies that weaken the coalition.
In March, Mr. Trump slammed President Iván Duque of Colombia — a key ally — saying “ he has done nothing ” to contain a recent surge in coca exports. This public humiliation has forced Mr. Duque to bow to pressure and adopt unpopular conservative positions like reneging on some aspects of the 2016 peace accords with guerrillas and asking the courts to roll back a judicial ban on aerial spraying of glyphosate — an herbicide linked to cancer — to eliminate coca crops. The more he moves to the right, the more his poll numbers decline. The United States is effectively weakening one of the most important pro-democracy actors in the region.
Mr. Trump's recent hard-line stance toward Cuba is also likely to alienate two other key partners: Spain and Canada. In mid-April, the Trump administration announced that it would allow United States citizens to sue any corporation that “traffics” in property confiscated by the Cuban government. As two of Cuba's most important trading partners, Spain and Canada will bear the costs of this policy. This is no way to reward members of the pro-democracy coalition.
The United States should be trying to engage Mexico, which has adopted a neutral position on the question of Venezuela. Instead bilateral relations between the two countries have been strained by Mr. Trump's continued hard-line immigration policies. Tensions escalated in March when Mr. Trump threatened to close the border. This intransigence over immigration only helps bolster the popularity of Mexico's left-wing president, eliminating any leverage the opposition in Mexico could use to pressure the president to change his policy toward Venezuela to align with Mr. Trump's.
Worse still has been the Trump administration's treatment of Russia and China, the most important adversaries of the pro-democracy coalition. The right strategy would have been to take a cue from Henry Kissinger's Cold War playbook: Pit China against Russia. In Venezuela, this would not have been unimaginable.
China was the most important actor in the country until the Russians arrived to ransack it. Venezuela's economic devastation left underutilized, underinvested and undervalued assets in its wake. Russians began acquiring many of those assets in 2017, becoming the country's new patron in the process. The biggest loser was China. The United States had an opportunity to convince China that deposing Mr. Maduro was the first step not just in returning value to Chinese investments but also in empowering China vis-à-vis Russia in Venezuela.
On May 3, Mr. Trump discussed Venezuela with President Vladimir Putin of Russia during an hourlong call. He later shocked everyone, including his own secretary of state, by stating that the Russians were “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela,” sounding more like Russia's ambassador to the United Nations than the president of the United States.
Worse, two days later he escalated the trade war with China, imposing 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods . Not surprisingly, China retaliated. In the meantime, the United States has expressed no qualms about oil imports from Russia, which have increased since Venezuela's oil collapse in another example of how Russia profits from the status quo in Venezuela.
In other words, Mr. Trump has been playing soft with Russia while antagonizing China. The Chinese now have more reason to be angry at Mr. Trump than at Mr. Putin.
The problem with the United States' policy toward Venezuela is not that it's imperialist or too cautionary, but rather that Trumpism is getting in the way of declared goals. Mr. Trump's visceral disdain for Latin Americans, his inexplicable submission to Mr. Putin and his irrational dislike of trade with China are sabotaging the chances of using effective international pressure to bring about democracy in Venezuela. Mr. Trump is neither pursuing nor ignoring United States interests. He is hurting them.
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Javier Corrales is an expert on Latin America. A professor of political science at Amherst College, is the author, most recently, of “Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America.” Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by NYTimes, on May 22, 2019. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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