U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

Venezuela: Inching Toward Negotiations?

By Fulton Armstrong

A group of Venezuelans protest against International Contact Group for Venezuela. The Venezuelan flag is held in the background as a protester holding a young child looks on.

Community of Venezuelans protest against International Contact Group for Venezuela / https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/montevideo-uruguay-february-8-2019-community-1307825104?src=qNES6S7x3QlbnYg-a1h2wg-1-0 / Shutterstock

As Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó reiterates his welcome to U.S. military intervention, his international supporters – rejecting a military solution – are moving toward promoting a negotiated settlement that would include President Maduro or, in one scenario, a chavista he designates. Guaidó publicly stated this past weekend that he has directed his representative in Washington to meet with the U.S. Southern Command, whose top officer recently said “we’re on the balls of our feet and ready to go,” to discuss “cooperation.” Although the 50-plus countries that recognized Guaidó’s claim as “interim president” in January have not abandoned him, press reports indicate that they are increasingly looking at alternatives to his strategy of instigating the Venezuelan military to overthrow Maduro and, failing that, asking Washington to do so.

  • The failure of Guaidó’s attempted coup in Operación Libertad, on April 30 – after other stalled initiatives over humanitarian aid at the Tienditas Bridge in February and numerous street mobilizations – has dispirited foreign supporters who joined Guaidó’s cause almost four months ago with the expectation that he would replace Maduro within days. Leaders in Latin America and the European Union have repeatedly expressed concerns about senior U.S. officials’ assertion that “all options,” including military action, are under consideration. (Secretary of State Pompeo last week repeated that the United States “will do what’s required.”)

These shifts give momentum to diplomatic initiatives to start and monitor a negotiated internal settlement. Advocates of negotiations, such as Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who last week said the United States was acting “like cowboys,” have begun to push harder.

  • On May 3, the “Lima Group,” including 12 Latin American countries and Canada, called for the first time for broader consultations on initiatives undertaken by the International Contact Group (the ICG, consisting of eight EU countries plus Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Ecuador) and, over the objections of Guaidó’s representative at their meeting, called for dialogue with Cuba to explore ways of ending the crisis. The ICG, meeting on May 7 with the important participation of the Vatican and Lima Group hardliner Chile, agreed to send a “high-level political delegation” to Caracas to discuss “concrete options” with both sides. Soon after, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to urge Havana’s help. (Cuba’s position remains that it would gladly participate if Maduro requested it.)
  • Federica Mogherini, the EU’s chief of foreign affairs, has kept up criticism of Maduro, condemning the arrest last week of National Assembly Vice President Zambrano, but press reports indicate that she’s maneuvering the 28-nation community away from absolute support for Guaidó and toward an inclusive negotiation process that produces a “political solution and early elections.” She has softened her previous demand of Maduro’s departure as a precondition.

The United States still firmly rejects any negotiated settlement, steadfastly repeating that Maduro and the “occupation forces” – Cuba and Russia – must leave Venezuela immediately. But, even if starting a negotiation does not ensure a good settlement, most of the international community is reaching the conclusion that sanctions, such as those that are worsening humanitarian conditions in the country by the day, are increasingly unlikely to produce the desired regime change and stable outcome. Anyone watching Venezuela over the years knows that both the opposition and Maduro (the latter more frequently) have thrown wrenches into past negotiations in belief that they would win a war of attrition. Advocates of a return to negotiations are under no illusion that talks this time will be easy. The U.S. sanctions will soon begin to bite harder, but Guaidó’s stumbles have convinced many that humanitarian suffering does not translate into regime change – and they may even think that now is time to begin using the leverage of sanctions and at least try to get a process going. There are few guarantees in world affairs, of course, but pragmatists seem to be betting that the probability of rescuing Venezuela from an even deeper abyss is greater with negotiations than with more sanctions and rhetoric about military attack.

May 13, 2019