U.S.-Latin America: Return of Monroe Doctrine

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes* and Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Colombia during his Latin American tour last summer. / White House / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s revival of a vision of U.S.-Latin America relations akin to the Monroe Doctrine is advancing with little pushback from the region.  Since former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eight months ago proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” Washington has continued to revive it as a guiding principle that includes limiting the influence of other powers in the hemisphere as well as reserving for itself the right to intervene when it feels its interests are threatened.

  • Tillerson complained that China “is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit” and that Russia’s “growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.” In August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis renewed the attack on China’s investment of billions in Latin America, claiming that “there is more than one way to lose sovereignty. … It can be with countries that come offering presents and loans.”  Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence repeated his government’s complaint that Latin America is among the regions where China is offering large infrastructure loans that are “opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing.”
  • Washington has also resorted to cavalier rhetoric regarding its perceived right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American countries to advance its interests. At the United Nations in late September, President Trump said, “Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintain[ing] our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers.”  President Trump argued for regime change in Venezuela and repeated that “all options are on the table, [including] the strong ones.”  In the new NAFTA agreement, Washington demanded, and achieved Mexican and Canadian concurrence on, a clause stipulating that the United States could terminate the agreement with six months’ notice if either negotiated a free trade agreement with a “non-market economy” – that is, with China.

Latin American governments’ voices have been thus far muted – perhaps because they are getting used to downplaying Trump’s rhetoric – even though the revival of the Monroe Doctrine is already shaping actual policies.  A hundred years ago, Latin American international lawyers, diplomats, and intellectuals worked hard to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a unilateral doctrine into a multilateral policy able to shape first Pan-American and later Inter-American relations.  Those efforts led to the adoption of hemispheric instruments such as the OAS Charter in 1948 and the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, gradually defining a mutually acceptable approach that strikes a balance between shared hemispheric values and the principle of non-intervention.  After the Cold War, references to the Monroe Doctrine disappeared from public discourse – except to disparage it as the Obama administration did – until the Trump administration revived it.

Today, the forums and organizations that Latin America has used during the last decade to articulate concerns and political responses to U.S. policies are not working.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s recent declarations that military action to solve the crisis in Venezuela cannot be ruled out, rather than offering a riposte, echoes Trump’s stance.  The Lima Group – which gathers together a group of OAS member states committed to the defense of democracy in Venezuela – pushed back against Almagro’s statements but, importantly, not against the U.S. administration’s policy.  More formal organizations such as UNASUR are not only muted, but actually paralyzed by the inability of its members to reach consensus and solve fundamental discrepancies. 

  • To resist and speak up when confronted with rhetoric and policies with such profound implications as a revitalized Monroe Doctrine is not a matter of politics and economics, but rather a necessary condition for friendly and respectful international relations and the sort of partnership that Latin Americans of all political stripes claim to want with the United States. To articulate such a response, Latin America urgently needs its leaders to think in “regional” and not only “national” terms – to nurture a genuine Inter-American community, not just bilateral relations with Washington.  The odds for such leadership to emerge at this moment do not appear high.  The possible election of a nationalist, xenophobic, and illiberal leader in Brazil may become a further challenge for collective action in the region.

October 12, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

U.S.-Cuba: How to Stop the Backslide in Relations

By William M. LeoGrande*

Raúl Castro sits at a table with two men.

Cuban President Raúl Castro. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Relations between the United States and Cuba are on a downward spiral due to the mysterious injuries suffered by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, and there is no clear escape path from the vicious circle of recriminations that have damaged the interests of both countries.  Washington’s initial response to the reported injuries a little over a year ago was to work quietly behind the scenes with Cuban authorities, even arranging visits by the FBI to Cuba.  However, once the story went public, calling the injuries “sonic attacks,” the Trump Administration bowed to pressure from Cuban-American legislators – Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio foremost among them – to impose sanctions on Havana.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late September issued an “ordered departure,” pulling most U.S. diplomats and family out of Havana and closing the consular section.  Days later, he expelled an equal number of Cubans, including their embassy’s consular staff and entire commercial section.  Soon after, Washington issued a travel warning that “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

  • The most recent blow to relations came on March 2, when the State Department announced that the staffing cutbacks would be permanent. Although it has been six months since the last recorded injury, Tillerson refuses to return U.S. diplomats to Havana until the mystery is solved or Cuba provides “credible assurances” that whatever happened will not happen again, but he has not said what assurances would count as credible.  Going forward, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba will be weaker than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in 1977.  With these actions, Cuban officials have begun to see the whole acoustic episode as an excuse manufactured by the Trump Administration to reverse President Obama’s normalization policy.

The absence of diplomatic boots on the ground means fewer cultural, educational, and business exchanges; slower progress on issues of mutual interest; less help for U.S. visitors who need consular services; and new hardships for Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, who now have to travel abroad to get a visa.  The travel warning has already reduced the number of U.S. visitors, hurting the owners of private rental homes (casas particulares) and restaurants (paladares).  U.S. study abroad programs have been hit hardest because many universities prohibit sending students to a country under a warning.  Neither government has suspended technical talks on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics and safe and orderly migration, but the State Department’s refusal to meet in Havana is certain to test Cubans’ patience.

As the last incident recedes in time, the chances of solving the mystery recede with it, which does not bode well for U.S.-Cuban relations.  Next month, Raúl Castro, the principal patron of normalization on the Cuban side, will retire from the presidency, raising the question whether his successor will persist in trying to improve relations when there appears to be so little interest in Washington.  Both U.S. and Cuban diplomats seem sincere about finding a way out of this impasse, get their embassies back up to full strength, and resume the dialogues that were underway, but this is a “permanent” reduction in staff without laying out the conditions – such as a particular period of time without new incidents or enhanced security measures – for restoring personnel.  The longer the two embassies operate with skeletal staff, the more damage will be done to the broad range of issues of mutual interest the two countries share.  Without an operating consulate, moreover, the United States will likely fail to meet its commitment – rooted in a 1994 agreement maintained by Presidents from both parties – to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year.  The United States and Cuba made surprisingly fast diplomatic progress in the last two years of the Obama Administration, signing two dozen bilateral agreements and dramatically expanding trade and travel.  Ending the Cold War in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly popular among ordinary citizens in both countries.  The current freeze in relations puts those gains at risk, giving both governments good reason to re-double their efforts to find a way out.

March 13, 2018

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.  This article is an adaptation of his analysis that appeared in Americas Quarterly on March 6.

U.S.-Latin America: Resuscitating the Monroe Doctrine

By Max Paul Friedman*

Two men stand at podiums

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) participates in a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) in Bogotá, Colombia on February 6, 2018. / State Department / Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent re-embrace of the Monroe Doctrine ignored the accumulated knowledge of the career diplomats in his Department and has reanimated this ghost of empire past.  In 2013, then-Secretary John F. Kerry launched an Obama Administration policy that helped bring the most improvement in U.S.-Latin American relations since Franklin Roosevelt, by announcing that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  Speaking at the University of Texas before embarking on his six-day Latin America tour earlier this month, Tillerson proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”

  • Only Americans who are new to diplomacy and Latin America think the Monroe Doctrine was a selfless gesture by the United States to curl a protective arm around a defenseless Latin America. When President James Monroe announced in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was closed to future European intervention, he had not consulted any Latin Americans.  If he had, they would have pointed out that he was quite deliberately not promising that there would be no U.S. intervention.  Indeed, the United States would go on to claim the right under the Monroe Doctrine to invade and occupy half a dozen countries in the Caribbean Basin in the century that followed.
  • In his remarks, Tillerson invoked President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Panama, which to many Latin Americans symbolizes the first covert operation for regime change of the 20th century, when TR conspired to tear the province of Panama away from Colombia. Tillerson echoed President John F. Kennedy’s promise to “eliminate tyranny” from the hemisphere, a pledge that has unfortunate resonance also.  Kennedy made use of economic warfare, assassination attempts, and invasion to try to “eliminate tyranny” from Cuba.  Tillerson also denounced China and Russia for their growing presence in the hemisphere, arguing explicitly that the United States is the only natural partner for Latin American countries.  Of the Monroe Doctrine, the Secretary said: “It clearly has been a success.”

The Monroe Doctrine has rankled in Latin America for two centuries.  Mexico refused to join the League of Nations because its charter incorporated the Monroe Doctrine.  Diplomats and jurists in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade the United States to convert it from a unilateral claim of hemispheric dominance into a multilateral, mutual security agreement among sovereign equals.  The dispute came to a head at an inter-American conference in Montevideo in 1933.  “This doctrine bothers, disunites and hurts us,” said Mexico’s Foreign Secretary José Manuel Puig Casauranc.  “As long as something is not the result of a reciprocal arrangement or obligation, even if it is a favor, it bothers and humiliates.”  In an effort to hem in U.S. unilateralism, the Montevideo conference passed a resolution declaring that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.”  That declaration became the core of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, a rare period of inter-American respect made possible by Washington’s restraint.

Latin American reactions to Tillerson’s speech and visit were tepid, but his rhetoric could not have helped him win friends and influence people.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to follow FDR’s tradition brought accolades and cheering crowds from Havana to Buenos Aires.  Now, in the context of Trump’s boasting in his State of the Union speech of having increased pressure on Cuba and Venezuela for regime change, and his earlier remark that he was preparing a “military option” for Venezuela, Tillerson’s speech suggests that the President’s interventionist instincts will not be restrained by his chief diplomat.  Referring to China and Russia, Tillerson concluded that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers.”  But his resurrection of the specter of Monroe, wittingly or not, signals that he would prefer a return to the old one.

February 22, 2018

*Max Paul Friedman is Professor of History and Affiliate Professor of International Relations at American University.

Cuba: Trump Actions Strengthening Hardliners

By Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande

Two buildings in a composite photo

On the left, the U.S. Embassy in Havana; on the right, the Cuban Embassy in D.C. / U.S. Government Accountability Office / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the end of Raúl Castro’s presidency approaches, Trump Administration actions halting, if not reversing, the process of normalizing relations with Cuba have tilted debate in Havana in favor of hardliners trying to keep the brakes on economic reform and on constructive relations with Washington.

  • In retaliation for alleged “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats in Havana, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ordered departure of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the closure of the U.S. consulate, and the expulsion of Cuban consular and commercial staff in Washington –has put a chill on bilateral relations that ratifies Havana hardliners’ contention that Washington cannot be trusted. By halting the issuance of visas to Cubans in Havana, the Trump Administration will almost certainly violate the 1994 migration accord committing the United States to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.  That would rupture the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington that bilateral cooperation on migration serves an important U.S. interest in safe and orderly migration.
  • The State Department’s unwillingness to share meaningful information on the U.S. diplomats’ mysterious symptoms – underscored by the Embassy’s refusal to use a hotline established for Cuba to investigate alleged attacks real-time – has frustrated pro-normalization Cubans, who face conservatives’ claims that Washington is cynically exploiting the incident to embarrass Cuba and return to a policy of hostility and regime change.
  • Other Trump measures reinforce Cuban conservatives’ efforts to limit the growth of the country’s nascent private sector, particularly entrepreneurs who profit from U.S. visitors and need easy travel to import inputs from the United States. A travel warning issued in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats is causing a sharp drop in U.S. travelers, and new regulations abolishing individual people-to-people educational travel are channeling people into large hotels, away from private bed and breakfast rentals.  A prohibition on doing business with companies and hotels allegedly linked to the Cuban military is not pushing new clients to cuentapropistas’ businesses but instead is discouraging travel and commerce in general.  Cuban reformers are further dispirited by the perception that Washington is shifting back to the erroneous view that it can promote regime collapse by tightening the economic screws on the government, thereby reinforcing a siege mentality among senior leaders and discouraging needed economic reforms as too risky in the current environment.
  • Trump’s actions have so closely dovetailed with the agenda of Cuban hardliners that some people speculate it was opponents of reform inside the Cuban government who perpetrated the mysterious “sonic attacks” to provoke a confrontation with Washington. But there is no evidence whatsoever in support of that theory, and for anyone to sabotage Raúl Castro’s opening to Washington – one of the signal achievements of his presidency – would be to commit political (if not literal) suicide.

Implementation of Raúl Castro’s road map for economic change, embodied in the 311 lineamientos approved in 2011 and the Conceptualización of Cuba’s socialist model approved by the Communist Party congress last year, had already slowed before Trump’s sanctions due to Cuban concerns about growing income inequality during a period of poor economic performance, uncertainty about energy imports, and perhaps the 86-year-old president’s own level of energy and state of mind after the passing of his two brothers (Ramón and Fidel both died in 2016).  Widely discussed political reforms, such as the Electoral Law and the Law on Associations, that were expected months ago have yet to be unveiled.  The Trump Administration’s efforts to expedite regime change by curtailing financial flows to the government and by promoting private sector growth at the expense of state enterprises make it easy for Cuban hardliners to rally support for slowing reforms.  Ever since he launched the reform process in 2011, Castro has insisted it would move ahead, “Without haste, but without pause.”  Lately, in part because of the Trump Administration’s actions, there’s a lot more “pause” than “haste.”

The election of First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl as president seems to be a foregone conclusion of the ongoing multi-tiered election process that culminates in February, but no one outside the two men’s inner circle seems to know how or when next steps on reforms will be sequenced.  Raúl’s focus has been on creating processes and institutions for governing after he steps down, rather than achieving particular results between now and the formalities confirming Díaz-Canel.  One thing that is near-certain, however, is that the successor’s legitimacy will be determined by performance, not his surname or soaring oratory.  Tackling the really big reforms that loom ahead, such as currency and exchange rate unification, will require political will from a relatively unified leadership.  Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries.

 December 18, 2017

U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization

By Fulton Armstrong

Tillerson US embassy in Cuba

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees. / U.S. Embassy in Cuba / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s decision to sharply reduce staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana and to warn U.S. travelers to avoid travel to Cuba is a major blow to U.S.-Cuba normalization – and a sign that Washington’s policy is once again dictated by politics rather than reality.  Announcing the measures, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday admitted that “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”  Washington is also suspending the processing of tens of thousands of visas for Cubans seeking to visit or migrate to the United States.  Most travel to the island by U.S. officials will also cease; bilateral meetings will continue only in U.S. territory.

  • As the State Department itself has admitted, the “sonic attacks” – which have not been proven to be either sonic or attacks – remain a total mystery. No agency of the U.S. or Cuban governments is aware of a technology that fits the victims’ description of what they experienced, and non-government scientists have been equally puzzled.  Doctors analyzing the victims’ symptoms (headaches, hearing loss, memory loss, confusion) do not see a common cause.  Moreover, no one has been able to ascertain that the incidents amount to deliberate, premeditated attacks.  No one has produced any evidence to support speculation that “rogue” elements of the Cuban government or a third country even possess, let alone have used these unknown technologies.  President Trump said on Friday, “Some very bad things happened in Cuba.  They did some bad things” – without saying who “they” are.
  • Leaks over the weekend that the diplomats suffering the worst symptoms have been U.S. intelligence officers seem intended to rationalize allegations of targeted attacks. But the Associated Press, which reported the leaks and other key aspects of the story, noted with irony: “Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear.  But this is Cuba.”

Even though none of the more than 600,000 U.S. travelers to the island each year has reported any of the symptoms experienced by the U.S. diplomats, Washington also issued a statement that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba.”  The State Department has provided no evidence that visitors are in danger.  Travel warnings are a powerful political signal of low confidence in host governments and can have a huge impact on local businesses – including many thousands in Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Administration deserves credit for resisting the temptation to blame the Cubans for the attacks, but it fell prey to its own mindset about “sonic attacks” and – under political pressure –got stuck reacting to an incredible scenario with a counterproductive set of measures.  While the State Department was right to admit its ignorance, a handful of legislators in Washington – a small group that had forcefully opposed normalization all along – filled the information void and corralled Tillerson into a policy prescription that undoes mainstays of the bilateral relationship, including visas, reciprocal meetings in each capital, and other cooperation that requires a robust presence in Havana.  By trying to scare away travelers, moreover, Tillerson threatens to take crucial business away from private entrepreneurs.

  •  The scope of the Administration’s measures – including discouraging non-governmental travel – contradict the leaks suggesting that the incidents are part of a spy war between the two countries. A full epidemiological study about everything the victims had in common – food, drink, habits, and workspaces within the embassy building itself – conducted months ago, when evidence and memories were fresh, would have helped inform these decisions.  To accuse Cuba now, almost a year after the first incident, of failing to meet Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomats rings hollow since the United States has accepted the sincerity of Havana’s efforts – from President Raúl Castro down to the working-level experts – to resolve the mystery and address its causes.  Having achieved the practical shutdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, opponents of normalization are now demanding total closure of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.  Politics is once again in danger of becoming the main driver of U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.

October 2, 2017

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.