United States: Putting the Hammer to Venezuela

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Trump press conference

Trump at a briefing on April 4th, 2020/ The White House/ Flickr/ Public Domain

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive actions to drive regime change in Venezuela – at a time that the already-desperate country, weakened by its incompetent government and U.S. sanctions, faces a potentially massive COVID-19 crisis – reflect Washington’s favoring of ends over means, with little concern for corollary damage. Regardless of whether President Nicolás Maduro survives the challenge, the country’s massive humanitarian and social disaster is likely to grow worse during the weeks and months ahead. At this point, there is no plausible scenario in which Washington can achieve what it claims is its desired outcome – a stable, democratic government – without a negotiated settlement.

  • The March 26 indictment of Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of narcotics-trafficking and support for terrorism against the United States underscored the administration’s commitment to removing a government it calls a “threat to the hemisphere.” The U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Maduro “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” The indictment forced an end to preliminary talks between Maduro and his opponents over a partial truce that would allow them to make a joint appeal for international aid to deal with COVID‑19.
  • On March 31, the administration announced a “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela. The plan called for Maduro to step down immediately and yield to a “Council of State” to govern until new elections. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other countries recognize as Acting President, would surrender his claim as well, but American officials made clear he had their full support in any upcoming campaign. Coming on the heels of the indictments, the framework was quickly rejected by the government.
  • The announcement on April 1 that the United States and 22 allies were launching “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the Caribbean near Venezuela – with large-scale military assets rarely seen in such missions – was another prong of what U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called “our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities.” Maduro cited these threats and indications of mysterious arms movements in Colombia – reported by a former Venezuelan general who some observers say turned collaborator with the U.S. DEA – as reasons for putting the country on military alert last weekend.

The U.S. actions appear to reflect a calculation that the Venezuelan government is so vulnerable that Maduro’s “former regime” will collapse and, somehow, a more sympathetic successor will emerge. U.S. sanctions over the past year-plus have effectively starved the economy, and the recent crash in oil prices has reduced revenues to a trickle. Observers in Caracas report that fear of COVID-19, in a country without medical supplies or even clean water in many parts, is intense.

  • The administration insists it desires a negotiated settlement, but these enhanced pressures, particularly the indictments, greatly complicate any effort to revive talks as Norway had configured them. Similar to last year’s efforts to provoke a coup against Maduro, this year’s “maximum pressure” seems premised on creating a collapse on a scale that forces the military’s hand. But the task of overthrowing Maduro would fall to an exhausted citizenry and field-grade officers not indicted or otherwise targeted by the United States government.

Whether Washington has a comprehensive strategy, is just taking ad hoc steps to force regime change, or is merely looking to wreak havoc at a time that its handling of the COVID‑19 crisis at home is falling under intense criticism, there is precious little historical evidence that its tactics will work in Venezuela. The movement of warships to the Venezuelan coast may only be a publicity stunt, with the support of some countries in the region, but it entails diplomatic and operational risks. It also is not beyond the pale to suppose that the administration, long frustrated in its regime-change efforts, will begin to believe its hyperbole about Maduro as a narco-terrorist poisoning drug-consuming U.S. youth, and be tempted to deploy measures even more drastic than those taken to date.

  • Negotiations, although difficult, are not impossible. When U.S. opposition to diplomatic efforts to resolve the wars in Central America reached a certain point, regional governments met behind Washington’s back and produced a historic plan – the “Esquipulas Accord” – that led to peace processes in each affected country. This situation is, of course, different, but Esquipulas showed that moving the U.S. to the side can work.
  • The indictments are reminiscent of U.S. tactics to overthrow General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1988-89 – resulting in a massive invasion to arrest that one man. Venezuela is different in many ways, and all parties should heed the adage of former U.S. military commander and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “You break it, you own it.”

April 7, 2020

Brazil: Politicizing Refugee Policy

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s decision to welcome Venezuelan refugees is based on political calculations — part of President Jair Bolsonaro’s domestic agenda, anti-Maduro policies, and efforts to polish his international image — while asylum-seekers of other nationalities are getting a distinctly colder shoulder. The country’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), which includes representatives of the Executive Branch and civil society, granted refugee status to approximately 37,000 Venezuelans between December and January. As permitted by Brazilian law, CONARE granted them prima facie refugee status — by virtue of the serious and widespread human rights violations in their home country — without requiring individual interviews. It was an unprecedented number, with strong support from the government, and responded to appeals from civil society and academic experts.

  • While the number of Venezuelans in other South American countries is greater, Brazil now has the most officially designated refugees. It previously had only a little more than an estimated 5,000 refugees of all nationalities — one-eighth its current total.
  • A generous refugee policy has been a key element of Brazilian foreign policy since the 1990s, often the subject of officials’ speeches in UN contexts. The current Administration’s rhetoric, however, has been different. While visiting India in 2019, Bolsonaro criticized a Brazilian law passed in 2017 (when, he claimed, he was the only deputy to cast a dissenting vote) that liberalized the country’s policies toward migrants — constituting a law in which foreigners would not be seen as threats to Brazilian society and also impacted the reality of refugees.

The recent decision to accept tens of thousands of Venezuelans appears motivated by the Bolsonaro Administration’s opposition to Venezuelan President Maduro — as well as Brazil’s left-leaning parties — more than by the humanitarian ideal of helping people fleeing crisis.

  • The Ministry of Justice has argued that non-Venezuelan arrivals are a security threat and need greater control. It introduced a legal regulation that increased control and facilitated the expulsion and deportation of foreigners, with some provisions that specialists claimed to be contrary to Brazilian laws. The regulation was revoked but made clear that the agency will continue to emphasize the security dynamic created by the entry of foreigners.
  • Minister of Justice Sergio Moro recently sent a message on social media stating that “Brazil will no longer be a refuge for foreigners accused or convicted of common crimes” [emphasis added]. With prior approval of CONARE, he rejected an appeal by three Paraguayans, who received refuge in Brazil in 2003 but were recently facing removal, and maintained the revocation of their refugee status.
  • Critics cite Moro’s use of social media to announce a technical decision as confirmation that his intention was primarily political. They note the ideological affinity between the current Brazilian and Paraguayan governments as being more important than the asylees’ previously determined well-founded fear of persecution — a violation of international law regarding non-refoulement. Critics also point out that the three Paraguayans were politically active with left-leaning groups opposed to Bolsonaro.

The contrast between the government’s and Moro’s attitudes toward asylum-seekers from Venezuela and elsewhere is striking. When confronted with evidence of rising crime by Venezuelan arrivals along the Brazilian border, the Minister said local authorities’ evidence was inconclusive. Bolsonaro’s supporters in the border state of Roraima protested Moro’s statement, but a subsequent decision to close the border for 15 days to foreigners without a permanent residence permit — allegedly in response to the threat of coronavirus — has calmed their concerns.

The CONARE decision on Venezuelans may have been intended in part to remove a glut that had slowed the entire refugee system, but the disparity in the treatment of asylum-seekers primarily reflects Brazil’s deep political polarization. Government discourse portrays its domestic opponents as being irresponsible leftists akin to Venezuelan President Maduro, who is so bad that starving refugees show up on Brazil’s doorstep, while praising rightist governments, to which even 17-year asylees can be repatriated without concern for their treatment. The Brazilian military’s deep involvement in operations regarding Venezuela also incentivizes civilians to help keep the status of refugees from becoming a political embarrassment.

  • Politicization of refugee policies and implementation is not unprecedented in Brazil. CONARE, the Brazilian government, and, indirectly, the UNHCR will determine how long this trend will continue. Altering Brazilian action to meet current political interests weakens the rights of refugees and related protective principles embodied in the Constitution and legislation.

March 23, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow and professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR).

Latin America: Growing Threat from Brazil’s PCC

By Ludmila Quirós*

City view of Pedro Juan Caballero

Pedro Juan Caballero City, Paraguay/ Wikimedia Commons

The Brazilian prison gang “First Capital Command” (PCC) is extending its influence far beyond the original base it had in Brazil when it formed around 2005, now threatening security far beyond prison walls and Brazil’s borders. Over the past 10 years, according to my estimates, PCC has consolidated its power in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states. Moreover, the group’s criminal activities – attacks, prisoner escapes, and drug-related activities – now involve branches in Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina – and as far north as Venezuela and Colombia. They have sleeper cells (Argentina and Uruguay); alliances with clans linked to narcotraffickers (Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela); and deep penetrations of governments (such as Paraguay).

  • In Paraguay, where the depth of its cooptation of state authorities is most obvious, PCC is most active. In mid-January, the dramatic escape from a Paraguayan prison on the Brazilian border underscored the scope of the problem. Some 75 prisoners, including a dozen PCC members, fled the Pedro Juan Caballero Prison through a tunnel that Paraguayan authorities knew about but were unable to close because of corruption at multiple levels, according to numerous sources.
  • In Argentina, national authorities have been tracking the group’s growth since the first infiltration of cells in 2018, when elements attempted to enter a jail in Oberá, in the province of Misiones near the “Triborder Area” with Paraguay and Brazil. Otherwise, the group seems to be keeping a low profile, suggesting an emphasis on the emplacement of sleeper cells for the time being. These individuals could be involved in creating “micro-trafficking” networks and establishing communications with allies under arrest for drug activities, but confirmation is lacking.
  • Other PCC members appear to be setting up in Uruguay, where preliminary circumstantial evidence suggests they’re involved in laundering PCC funds, and in Bolivia, where establishing drug routes into Brazil would be top priority. In Colombia and Venezuela, which are more directly involved in the drug trade, PCC has similar activities, according to research. Efforts in Colombia involve “transfers” of senior PCC members to that country to negotiate the purchase of drugs and to manage their transport through chains that get the product into Brazil.

Although PCC’s corrosive influence is being felt gradually throughout the continent, Paraguay is clearly the group’s most vulnerable target. Its allies function as full franchises of the Brazilian PCC, and the prison escape, indicating that they have bought the cooperation of very senior officials, suggests it is able and willing to assume an even greater role in the country. PCC’s ability to negotiate among gangs in Brazil on issues as sensitive and strategic as levels of violence and truces means that in even more vulnerable societies, such as Paraguay, it could rise to play a kingmaker role on a range of security matters. In that context, prison escapes like last month’s enable it to do more than recruit local members and allies; they give PCC concrete leverage to use in interactions with Paraguayan authorities.

  • This possible contagion effect – infiltrating other countries and developing loyal followers – will increasingly challenge the regional and national security institutions in the region at a time that governments are distracted by other pressing issues and there is relatively little understanding of how organized crime is evolving.

February 6, 2020

Ludmila Quirós is a researcher at the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT) and the International Relations Institute, La Plata National University in Argentina.

Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

47389747662_9be46749b5_z

South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Democracy and democratic values are in crisis throughout South and Central America, but the causes – and solutions – vary across the region, with rays of hope that at least some countries will find their way forward. The Bolivian elections, plagued by suspicions of fraud, reflect some of the problems that affect all of Latin America. The previously unbeaten President Evo Morales, in government since 2006, has now shown his limits and, even if his election is confirmed, will govern without the parliamentary majorities he enjoyed in the past.

  • Latin America witnessed violent protests almost simultaneously in Ecuador and Chile; Mexico blinked during a confrontation with the son of narcotics kingpin Chapo Guzmán; the Congress was dissolved in Peru; an ex-President in the Dominican Republic denounced as fraudulent the primary election he lost and joined another party to be its candidate; and a massive exodus continued pouring out of Venezuela, whose crisis is terminal but without an expiration date.
  • The Argentine and Uruguayan elections on October 27 marked the end of a three-year cycle of elections during which 14 countries voted to elect or re-elect their presidents. Speculation was originally that a swing to the right would counteract the Bolivarianism of the previous swing to the left. That shift never happened. In its place, a more heterogeneous and divided Latin America emerged, reflected in the outcome of the Argentine and Uruguayan elections, and in the not-insignificant fact that Mexico is governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador while Brazil, the other regional power, has Jair Bolsonaro.

The causes of this wave of divisiveness are the subject of different theories. Many observers speak of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the leftist São Paulo Forum. Others think it’s a popular reaction to the drastic adjustment programs of the IMF. Yet others argue about a contagion factor and the impact of social networks, which enable real-time communication and the transfer of vivid images of events. Nonetheless, any theory that tries to harness all of these theories will be flawed because each national reality is responding to different logic and dynamics.

  • All of the countries of the region are experiencing inequality, poverty, corruption, violence and narco-trafficking, unhappiness with democracy and its institutions, rejection of politicians, and the impact of the “new politics” of social media and fake news. But they are not present to the same proportions.
  • Neoliberal, Bolivarian, and populist governments are all suffering from rebellions. The Chilean protests over transportation fees under neoliberal President Piñera were preceded by protests in Brazil in 2013 under progressive President Dilma Rousseff. If Piñera resorts to military force to stop the protests, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did something similar in 2018, killing more than 300. The IMF might have been behind the reduction of fuel subsidies in Ecuador, but it had no role in Chile. While elections went as normal in Argentina and Uruguay, in Bolivia, like in Venezuela, the allegations of fraud have been constant.

The solutions to each country’s challenges will have to be as different as their causes. While one country needs deeper economic adjustment, another needs to fix its political institutions. Each is going to have to find its way through the crises. Latin America will find little solace, moreover, in the fact that this high level of conflict is not exclusive to its region. From Hong Kong to Cataluña, or in Libya and Lebanon, similar challenges are disrupting national life.

  • Amid the many indications that representative or liberal democracy is under direct attack – that we may be facing the end of an era with potentially dire implications – some positive notes are visible in Latin America. In addition to the orderly contests in Argentina and Uruguay, the local and regional elections in Colombia in late October were an effective exercise in democracy – won by the center and lost by the extremes. Uribismo on the right and Gustavo Petro on the left were the big losers. The emerging symbol was Claudia López, the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, who is also a lesbian, environmentalist, and leader against corruption. The path ahead is certainly not going to be easy for Latin America, but there is evidence that, with a big dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s reality, Latin Americans can do a lot better.

November 5, 2019

* Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

 

Haiti: Is Anyone Listening?

By Fulton Armstrong

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government's misuse of funds from PetroCaribe.

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government’s misuse of funds from PetroCaribe– once again the subject of public anger/ Rony D’Haiti/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manifestation_Haiti.jpg

As Haiti enters a fifth week of protests, President Jovenel Moïse’s support for U.S. policies on Venezuela and Taiwan appears to have secured him Washington’s backing, but his government is in tatters and his opponents don’t look likely to fold soon. For weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have held targeted marches in Port-au-Prince and provincial cities across the country demanding Moïse’s resignation. Violence by demonstrators and police has caused 17 deaths and hundreds of injuries, including the shooting of several journalists, according to human rights monitors. School closures have left up to 2 million children without class and the food supplements they receive there.

  • Protesters originally took to the streets to protest fuel shortages caused by government insolvency, but corruption – including the misappropriation of an estimated $2 billion dollars in profits from the sale of fuel under Venezuela’s previous PetroCaribe program – has become the overwhelming issue. Opposition leaders cite Superior Court audits implicating Moïse and other government officials past and present in schemes to personally profit from PetroCaribe security forces’ use of clubs and tear gas (and unconfirmed use of live ammunition) against demonstrators has further fueled anger in the streets. Haiti’s Catholic Bishops have blamed Moïse for the showdown, and their “Justice and Peace Commission” has publicly called for his resignation.
  • Moïse’s leadership has been unsteady throughout the crisis. He was out of public view entirely for one week, returning only in a pre-recorded radio address broadcast at 2:00 am on September 25 that called for calm and dangled the prospect of a “government of national unity.” Since his inauguration in January 2017, he has lived under the shadow of suspicious vote counts and has either failed to get Prime Ministers confirmed by Parliament or to build a good working relationship with them. The country hasn’t had a budget for two years, and a projected 20 percent inflation during 2019 and mere 1.5 percent growth further drive popular fury.

Moïse is clearly winning the competition for international support. However, he has gained U.S. silence about the evidence of his and senior allies’ involvement in PetroCaribe under Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro. During the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Moïse’s Foreign Minister, Bocchit Edmond, with whom he “reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Haiti partnership and shared hope that Haiti’s political stakeholders would soon identify a path to forming a government that remains firmly rooted in democracy and the rule of law.”

  • The opposition’s calls for support have been much less successful. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican widely seen as President Trump’s top advisor on hemispheric affairs, said it was not the “proper job of the United States to call on a democratically elected President [Moïse] to step down.” (Rubio had praised Moïse for supporting U.S. sanctions to remove Maduro and for preserving diplomatic relations with Taiwan.) The senior Democrat in the U.S. Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, last week also cited Moïse’s position on Maduro as important.
  • UN officials last week issued a “statement of concern,” noting that the protests were hindering aid deliveries and could lead to a humanitarian crisis. The UN remained neutral, however, and called on “everyone” to refrain from the use of violence. An unofficial OAS delegation to Haiti organized by individuals close to Senator Rubio in June told the opposition to “back off,” according to press reports, and reportedly told Moïse that he should “start governing” but it was “not going to ask him to resign.” Overall, however, the OAS has kept a very low profile, especially during the current crisis.

Haitian politicians have often turned to foreign friends and multilateral organizations to rescue them from crises – which they surely stir up themselves – but the international community, rather than addressing fundamental problems, often tries to paper over highly contested elections (like Moïse’s) and institutional weaknesses. The billions in PetroCaribe revenues that have vanished during the past two presidencies – including that of Moïse’s mentor, Michel Martelly – is strong circumstantial evidence that the opposition’s calls for investigation of the current administration have merit. But Moïse seems to be betting – correctly so far – that support for Washington’s priorities, such as condemning alleged corruption and undemocratic practices in other countries, buys him space to snub opponents’ demands. The UN and OAS just don’t seem to want to get more deeply involved, but the opposition, which has surprised many with the length and level of protests, doesn’t seem ready to give up.

October 11, 2019

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

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’s Communal Councils: Holding on During Dark Times

By Michael McCarthy and Jared Abbott*

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro walking with community leaders

Maduro in Protected Cultivation Houses of Quibor-Edo / Flicker / Creative Commons /https://www.flickr.com/photos/chavezcandanga/8402610886/in/photostream/

Venezuela’s Communal Councils (Consejos Comunales), created in 2006, endure as an influential grassroots mechanism amid the country’s cataclysmic economic depression and political crisis. Increasingly, their primary function appears to be helping embattled President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party maintain loyalty among its declining base. Three factors linked to Chavismo’s melding of party and state have enabled the Councils to survive amid radically changed conditions: linking them to state-run food distribution programs, giving them problem-solving functionality, and building block-level group ties in Council-created spaces.

  • Survey data we collected in late 2018 demonstrates that participation in Councils has declined as resources have contracted, but the groups remain alive and well. Our poll of more than 1,078 Communal Council participants revealed that about a third perceive the Councils’ reach as remaining as strong as before the economic slide accelerated four years ago, while another 13 percent believe participation has even grown. Sixty-two percent of respondents who reported ever participating said that they still did in 2018.
  • The Councils have been critical in minimizing major disturbances in popular sectors over the past five years through the role they have played – in coordination with the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP) – in distributing monthly food boxes to a large majority of the population. Not surprisingly, of all the Councils’ thematic committees, food committees are by far the most active. Council participants reporting being active in a food committee increased from zero in 2009 to 20 percent in 2018.
  • Our survey and interviews show that the Councils have been crucial in sustaining the party’s capacity to mobilize its core supporters in key moments such as during widely criticized elections that Maduro held in May 2018. Our research also finds that most Councils are not necessarily ideologically soaked spaces of pro-regime behavior, although many citizens understand them in highly political terms. Participation, while heavily skewed toward Chavismo, reflects the whole Venezuelan political spectrum and often transcends partisan politics. Our survey shows, moreover, that over 60 percent of Venezuelans reported as recently as last December that the Councils benefit the whole community, not just party members. This practical problem-solving dimension helps enable the Councils to retain relatively broad support among Venezuelan society.
  • Our survey results suggest that the Councils are effective in increasing positive attitudes toward the government even in the absence of direct material benefits. For instance, of those who reported that their opinion of the ruling party improved since they began participating in a Council, the vast majority cited their improved social status in the community or increased political efficacy, rather than the receipt of material benefits through the Councils, as the reason for their improved attitude toward the party.

The Councils have operated across three competing models: a “deepening democracy” model focused on expanding avenues of citizen participation within the existing political system; a utopian “dual power” model aimed at replacing the existing political system with a radical direct-democracy; and a “vanguardist” model where the councils serve as a direct instrument of the party to mobilize and grow the electoral base. While all three models played an important role during the early years of the Councils, the vanguard model has recently superseded the others. Although still sometimes used by different party factions to stimulate debate about the government’s policies and performance, the Councils’ role in consolidating a loyal base of supporters to withstand the current period of economic and political crisis has been much more important.

The Councils’ evolving relationship with the ruling Socialist Party raises serious questions about whether, as political and economic conditions grow less stable, participatory institutions like the Councils open political spaces for engagement and incorporation, or devolve into a cynically deployed tool of populist autocrats – with unsettling implications for the future of participatory democracy that some leftist parties in Latin America advocate. Indeed, the Venezuela example suggests that, when political and economic conditions become less favorable for sustaining participatory institutions, most parties will either abandon them or instrumentalize them as part and parcel of an authoritarian power consolidation strategy. The groups’ changing political character becomes a matter not of “if,” but of “when.” Political party leaders can, if they want and if they try, stay true to the participatory vision through imaginative leadership and creative organizational schemes. In Venezuela, however, they have not.

September 9, 2019

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at GWU’s Elliott School, and publisher of Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America. Jared Abbott is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Harvard University. This is adapted from their article, Grassroots Participation in Defense of Dictatorship, in the Summer 2019 Fletcher Forum.

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: Washington Trying to Tighten the Noose

By Eric Hershberg

Two side by side images of Venezuela's territory comparing the electrical grid on March 7 and March 12, after six days of blackout

Satellite images of Venezuela. Left image taken on March 7, 2019; right image taken on March 12, 2019 during a blackout / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro completes 11 weeks in office since Washington and dozens of other countries recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” the Trump Administration is ratcheting up the pressure. U.S. officials’ rhetoric and actions against both Venezuela and Cuba, which the State Department says is “propping up the former [Maduro] regime,” are escalating. A “senior official” told reporters last Friday that new sanctions would “tighten the noose of financial strangulation of Maduro and his cronies,” while U.S. Vice President Pence, speaking in Houston, reiterated that “all options are on the table.” Pence further focused U.S. regime-change policy on Cuba, citing Guaidó’s wife as the source of evidence that “the only way [Maduro] clings to power is with the help he receives from Communist Cuba.” Pence also said six U.S. businessmen arrested on corruption charges last year “are being held hostage by the Maduro regime,” suggesting another pretext for aggressive action.

  • Last Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated 34 vessels owned by PDVSA and two owned by non-Venezuelan companies for sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the move was to block Venezuelan oil exports and cut off supplies to Cuba under the two countries’ “oil-for-repression schemes.”.
  • Press reports on Venezuela’s oil shipments have varied, but Thomson Reuters specialists have reported that Venezuelan oil shipments, after a 40 percent drop in February, remained basically steady in March despite the crisis and electricity disruptions at oil facilities. PDVSA was shipping almost 1 million barrels a day in March, with the bulk going to India, China, and Russia. Reuters calculated that some 65,000 barrels a day went to Cuba.

Electricity blackouts and resulting water shortages have continued for three weeks. While conceivably the result of serious neglect of infrastructural maintenance by Maduro’s Administration, the outages have all the markings of covert sabotage operations. Venezuela has suffered from short power outages many times in recent years, but the latest blackouts have been by far the most extensive, longest, and most damaging. U.S. officials have denied any U.S. role, direct or indirect, in the blackouts. On March 8, Special Representative Elliott Abrams said, “So the United States did not cause those [electricity] problems, the international community did not; the regime caused those problems.”

The U.S. sanctions and related operations are having an impact, but Washington’s initial estimations of Maduro’s strength and the timeline for his collapse were not realistic. Meanwhile, denials of involvement in the blackouts are hard to take at face value. The phrase “all options” surely includes covert action. Turning out the lights is a common disruption tactic, and extraordinary neglect in system maintenance makes the power grid a particularly tempting target in Venezuela. Sabotage and disinformation operations have long been core components of American covert operations in the hemisphere. They were essential tools in successful efforts to depose Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954 and Chilean President Allende in 1973. The CIA has also formed armed groups, such as the Bay of Pigs force in 1961 and the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s (where CIA also mined Corinto harbor). These historical precedents may provide some indications of next steps in the administration’s campaign to bring about regime change in Caracas.

April 11, 2019