Venezuela: Can Trump’s Coercive Diplomacy Help?

By Michael McCarthy*

A large auditorium-style room filled with people watching a speaker at the front

U.S. President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017. / John Gillespie / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Trump’s new rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country.  At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump called President Maduro an authoritarian and said “this situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”  Washington’s approach emphasizes sticks – sanctions against President Maduro, senior advisors, and threatened action against the oil sector – over carrots, while also voicing support for the opening of new mediated face-to-face talks between Maduro and the opposition.  A contact group of six Latin American and four European countries is promoting the talks, with the backing of UN Secretary General and the Vatican, to help avoid the worst-case scenario of open conflict.  Previous efforts to coordinate a multilateral coalition that simultaneously keeps the pressure on the government while opening negotiation avenues have failed – and agreeing on a roadmap is even more complex in view of the installation of the Constituent Assembly that stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

  • Trump’s new Executive Order directs financial sanctions that come close to directly threatening Maduro’s vital supports. It bans Caracas from issuing new debt in the United States and prohibits U.S.-based CITGO – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company – from repatriating dividends to Caracas.  These measures will impose austerity on Maduro (who claims he will still make upcoming debt payments) and future actions are likely to try and undermine the government’s economic foundations.
  • In addition to installing the Constituent Assembly, Maduro seems to be pursuing a new regime-survival strategy in which he plays the role of a non-vengeful victim. Maduro criticized Trump’s sanctions and called him “the new Hitler” after the UN speech on Tuesday, but he’s also offered donations to aid post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston and invoked John Lennon in a call for “giving peace a chance” in a New York Times ad earlier this month.  To regain a degree of credibility, Maduro will probably consider making elections for Governors slated for October 15 look competitive, but whether he has the political capital with his base to make bigger political or economic moves is unclear.  He may look to establish a new institutional equilibrium of dual legislatures, though it would hinge on removing the threat of retaliation against the opposition via the Constituent Assembly’s so-called “Truth Commission.”  He may also try to address massive fiscal imbalances by reforming the multi-tiered exchange rate, though this would be difficult as the system’s subsidized dollars help underwrite regime loyalty.

While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally.

None of the piecemeal actions that Maduro is apparently contemplating can defuse the political and social crisis, but a combination of steps may be enough to convince China and Russia to stay in the game.  Despite Trump’s statement that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the Administration apparently is open to a policy of coercive diplomacy that includes genuine support for talks.  Trump attacked his predecessor for “leading from behind,” but figuring out how to sequence sticks and carrots in coordination with Latin American and European countries may require just that.  The bottom line is that the chance of a breakthrough on the biggest issues – the Constitutional road map and conditions for electoral participation – remain low, although some movement by both parties toward the middle seems realistic.  Despite the actions of outside actors, the situation is likely to remain poised over a knife-edge – without the catharsis of either peace or regime change.

September 21, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

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