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

U.S.-Cuba: You Can’t Get There from Here

By William M. LeoGrande

ventas en cuba

Small Business in Cuba / Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertoyoan/8775169259

U.S. President Donald Trump’s new economic sanctions against Cuba, imposed earlier this week, include limits on travel and family remittances aimed at crippling the Cuban economy and causing regime collapse, but the biggest losers are the small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists who have been agents of change on the island. Senior administration officials, foremost among them National Security Adviser John Bolton, have been explicit that the goal is to rid the hemisphere of “socialism,” starting with the government of Venezuela and proceeding to Cuba and Nicaragua. Bolton previewed the new sanctions in Miami on April 17  – the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Now we know the details.

  • Remittances, which were unlimited under President Barack Obama, will be limited to $1,000 per recipient household every quarter – enough to supplement a family’s meager state salary, but not enough to start and sustain a business. The new limits will hit Cuba’s nascent private sector hardest because funds from the United States were the start-up capital for many small businesses, and their supply chains reach back through Miami.
  • Trump has eliminated the people-to-people category of educational travel, which Bolton denounced as “veiled tourism.” This category covered educational tours not involving academic credit – tours run by organizations like National Geographic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Smithsonian. Authorized originally by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, people-to-people travel was eliminated by President George W. Bush in 2003, in response to complaints from conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida. President Obama restored it in 2011. Trump, like Bush, appears to be pandering to the Cuban American Republican base in Miami in the run-up to the next presidential election. Last year, 638,000 U.S. residents who were not Cuban Americans traveled to Cuba – at least two-thirds if not more under a people-to-people license, mostly on cruises, which Trump also banned. These new travel restrictions will cost Cuba upwards of $300 million dollars annually in lost revenue.

Cuba’s private sector will suffer disproportionately from these measures. In addition to losing start-up capital and access to supplies, these businesses will lose their principal client base. U.S. travelers arriving by air are more likely stay in Airbnb rentals and eat at private restaurants than the Canadians and Europeans who come on tourist vacation packages and stay at the big hotels on the beach. Trump’s first restriction on people-to-people travel in 2017, banning individuals from designing their own people-to-people trips, caused a 44 percent slump in private B&B occupancy. The new restrictions will wipe out many of them.

  • U.S. business and people will take a hit too. In 2017, Engage Cuba, a coalition of business groups favoring trade, released an analysis concluding that U.S. visitors to Cuba generated $1.65 billion in revenue annually for U.S. businesses and accounted for more than 12,000 U.S. jobs in the hospitality sector, most of which would be lost if Trump cut off travel. Most importantly, the new restrictions deprive most U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to travel, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1958 in Kent v Dulles. The Court said the right should be limited only in cases of dire threats to national security.

As usual, tougher economic sanctions will make life tougher for ordinary Cubans, but sanctions won’t bring down the Cuban government, which has survived the U.S. embargo for half a century. Economic hardship and U.S. hostility will heighten Cuban leaders’ sense of being besieged, making them less likely to reform the economy or allow any expansion of free expression. Economic, professional, educational, and cultural ties between people in the United States and their counterparts in Cuba will be harder to sustain, impoverishing both. Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who could be an engine for economic transformation and who Trump claims to support, will suffer from the loss of business from American travelers. U.S. travel companies will lose access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing tourism markets in the Caribbean. But maybe, just maybe, this latest assault on the liberties of Americans by the Trump administration will motivate Congress to finally pass a “Freedom to Travel” bill, assuring that no president can take away the constitutional right to travel just because he thinks it will help him win re-election.  

June 6, 2019

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.

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

Venezuela: Maduro’s Ploy Backfires

By Michael McCarthy*

Maduro and the Venezuelan flag

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. / President of Russia / Flickr / Creative Commons

Almost a month after Nicolás Maduro held a snap presidential vote to strengthen his political power, the ploy appears to have largely backfired and left him weaker.  The dynamics underlying the years-long crisis have not fundamentally shifted, but the deepening impact of the economic implosion on the oil industry poses a threat to vital state interests and regime stability.  Maduro’s crisis management will face another major stress test.

  • Even the government’s own dubious figures on voter turnout – 46 percent – were too low to give the election credibility, limiting Maduro’s ability to claim a strong mandate. Criticism of the government’s efforts to sway voters by distributing food, medications, and other necessities at polling places was intense.  All but a few loyal friends in the international community have been reluctant to congratulate Maduro.  China and Russia accepted the vote count, but Beijing appeared particularly cooler than in the past, while Ecuador and Uruguay issued statements aimed at depolarizing the situation.  The OAS General Assembly lacked the 24-vote threshold necessary to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Venezuela’s participation in the regional body, but the Dominican Republic’s shift away from its previous support for Maduro must have been a blow.
  • Maduro’s victory is further overshadowed by the fact that as much as 85 percent of the pro-government vote went to the party of Diosdado Cabello, who leads a competing faction under the flag of the Partido Socialista Unido (PSUV), while Maduro’s Movimiento Somos Venezuela got only 5 percent. Longtime observers argue that a battle between Maduro and Cabello, an original member of the Chávez 4F movement that staged a failed coup in 1992, is heating up.  The PSUV will hold a party congress on July 28 – Chávez’s birthday – that promises to serve as venue for Cabello to pursue his leadership ambitions.

Maduro’s weakness appears to have motivated several actions he’s taken since the election.  Most observers believe that he directed a raft of prisoner releases to improve his sagging image, pacify the situation, and set the stage for dialogue.  He reportedly wanted to reshuffle his cabinet to shore up unity, but internal political difficulties apparently have delayed it temporarily.

  • He also released a U.S. national, Joshua Holt, who had been under arrest since 2016 on trumped up charges of espionage and conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Maduro’s goal may have been to disarm U.S. criticism and open a line of communication, but the day after the election he also expelled the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires and his deputy.  The U.S. State Department wasted no time in reciprocating by expelling two Venezuelan diplomats, and later, in the wake of the Holt release, it underlined that policy toward Venezuela “remains unchanged.”

More U.S. sanctions may be imposed, but Maduro’s self-destructive rule is doing his government even more harm.  A combination of increasing hyperinflation and a potential record drop in month-to-month oil production from May-June suggest a rapidly worsening economy.  Press reports suggest state oil company PDVSA will soon announce that it cannot honor its monthly production obligations with a number of key partners – a major blow for a government dependent on oil for 95 percent of its income.  After calling for a boycott of the May 20 vote, the traditional opposition breathed a collective sigh of relief that a majority of voters stayed home, but this does not give them the win they need to regain public trust.  Continually bleak prognoses once again stir speculation that the military will step in.  Yet it is not so simple.  The military seems to operate more according to informal networks and personality-driven hierarchies, creating divisions that make it hard for groups to credibly act in the name of the armed forces.  So far, senior officials seem to have determined that loyalties to a dysfunctional regime do not yet sufficiently threaten business and institutional interests for them to take action.

 June 14, 2018

* 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.

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.

Cuba: Preparing for President Trump

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Day Donaldson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington.  Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the President-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of U.S. willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of U.S. pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from U.S.-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. U.S. retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked.  A U.S. return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela.  Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements.  Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization; its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord; its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union; and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe have boosted the country’s international image – and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.  However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump Administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

December 19, 2016

The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere.  The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century.  The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week.  Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors.  But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”  Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.

Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere,  including in attitudes toward the United States.  The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”  The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.”  The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions.  Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship.  Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.

Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list.  This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups.  In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation.  This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela.  While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education.  These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.

April 13, 2015

Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Sanctions on Venezuela: Why?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sanctions against Venezuela that the Obama Administration announced last week respond to political pressure to punish alleged human rights violators in Caracas, but they have no immediately apparent policy objective.  The State Department announced that it has suspended the U.S. visas of “a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in … human rights abuses” during protests earlier this year, which resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people, injury of hundreds more, and jailing of dozens of activists.  The Department did not release a list of sanctioned individuals nor divulge the information used to compile the list, but press reports indicate that 24 officials have been targeted and include cabinet members, presidential advisers, police, and military officials.  The sanctions do not affect bilateral trade or Venezuela’s place as the United States’ fourth biggest foreign supplier of oil.

U.S. condemnation of the Venezuelan government and the blacklisted officials has been strident, but there has been no public explanation of what Washington expects the sanctions to achieve.  The statements of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Feeley, made to a Colombian radio station and reported by El Universal in Caracas, strongly suggest the sanctions are intended to show solidarity with the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. disapproval of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.  “Social protests have been a genuine war cry from people oppressed by the lack of democracy,” Feeley is reported as saying.  “The [sanctions] were intended to note that the U.S. cannot allow, for the sake of its values, that a supposedly democratic government represses the legitimate expression of the people’s voice.”  The State Department has not demanded, however, any particular action by Caracas to lift the sanctions, such as an investigation into the abuses, re-launching a national dialogue, or compensating victims.  Feeley suggested that the governments of Colombia and Brazil – with which he said the U.S. government had “meditated” about the issue – supported the sanctions, but regional support for them has been muted at best.  Indeed, the Administration had responded to last May’s House of Representatives vote in favor of sanctions by indicating that these would be counterproductive and could undermine efforts at mediation by these same countries.  The one dissenting voice in the House, Congressman Greg Meeks (D-NY), explained his vote as opposing unilateralism, adding that its passage was a message to Latin American governments that we don’t care what they think.

The Venezuelan government has repeatedly and credibly asserted that a significant portion of the violence has been perpetrated by protestors rather than the state or government supporters, and a number of officials have been charged.  Nonetheless, no U.S. sanctions have been brought against opposition members who planned or participated in violent actions.

Some observers have attributed the U.S. action to pique that Aruban and Dutch officials several days earlier rejected its request that they extradite to the U.S. Venezuela’s new consul in Aruba, a former chief of intelligence whom Washington suspects of trafficking in drugs with the Colombian FARC – despite Vienna Convention provisions regarding diplomatic immunity.  More likely, the sanctions are a reaction to a realization that the quixotic “salida” campaign, which many in Washington somehow imagined could bring down the Maduro government only months after it had won an election, had all but petered out, leaving the opposition in disarray and the government in a renewed position of strength.  Sanctions also are a bow to congressional pressure on the Obama Administration to act against Caracas, which has continued to grow even after the salida campaign has run out of gas.  Just hours after the sanctions were announced, Senator Marco Rubio issued a press release taking credit for them, and other conservatives – led by the Cuban-American congressional delegation – called for even tougher measures.  Without clear objectives, however, the sanctions seem to be mostly a moral and political statement – pushing relations into yet another dead end from which neither government is disposed to find a way out.  Indeed, Venezuelan officials, calling the sanctions “a desperate cry from a nation that realizes the world is changing,” are turning the diplomatic adversity to domestic political advantage, just as administration officials had wisely predicted in pushing back against the Congressional saber rattling last spring.