Venezuela on their minds
Donald Trump rarely mentioned Venezuela during his presidential campaign and never expressed interest in intervening there. That changed after Trump and former rival in the Republican primaries Marco Rubio — a Cuban-American senator from Florida — met several times in spring 2017. Rubio, who is close to rightwing Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American donors and voters, seems to have convinced Trump to take a hard line on Venezuela: Rubio claimed bringing about a regime change there would significantly improve Trump’s chances in the key swing state of Florida in the 2020 presidential election.
Soon afterwards, Trump announced his intention to reverse Barack Obama’s normalisation policy towards Cuba. Then he turned to Venezuela, announcing that a ‘military option’ was still on the table and imposing crippling financial sanctions. The major countries of the region joined in the US effort to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro, something that would have seemed impossible a decade ago.
Latin America has changed. When Obama first took office in January 2009, much of this region and the Caribbean was dominated by independently minded left-leaning governments, despite the efforts of previous Republican administrations to turn back the ‘pink tide’ of the early 21st century.
But by the end of Obama’s two terms, Latin America had swung back to the right. Groundbreaking regional integration schemes led by leftwing governments, such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), were paralysed or floundering. Meanwhile, a US-backed block had emerged — the Pacific Alliance, made up of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, all signatories to free trade agreements with the US. Openly hostile to Unasur, Venezuela and Cuba, it has embraced many of the neoliberal policies that led to economic stagnation and increased inequality during the 1980s and 90s.
Conditions were ripe for the US to launch its operation against Venezuela. In August 2017 representatives of 11 mostly rightwing Latin American governments met in Peru and signed the Lima Declaration, denouncing the alleged ‘rupture of democratic order’ and ‘violation of human rights’ in Venezuela and committing to work together to isolate the Maduro government internationally. The ‘Lima Group’ has met repeatedly since, focusing on Venezuela and ignoring troubling attacks on democracy and human rights in Honduras and Colombia, both Lima Group members.
Though the US isn’t officially part of the group, there have been high-level US representatives at nearly all its meetings. While the Obama administration cheered on the Pacific Alliance and downplayed its role in that group’s formation, Trump’s entourage cite Lima Group positions to create the impression that US strategy is rooted in a regional multilateral consensus on Venezuela. Their efforts have been helped by media’s apparent blindness to the group’s ideological uniformity.
When the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president this January, the US and the Lima Group recognised him immediately. The group called on the armed forces to stage a coup against Maduro, re-elected in contested elections in May 2018. Only Mexico, where leftwing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador had taken office in December 2018, refused to sign the group’s resolution, instead proposing, jointly with the left-leaning government of Uruguay, a ‘dialogue mechanism’ to address Venezuela’s political crisis.
The Lima Group provides strong support to the Trump administration. Ironically, the aggressive approach of that administration is gradually alienating its allies, even though the Latin American geopolitical panorama hasn’t been as favourable to US interests since the late 1990s. When Guaidó floated the idea in February of foreign military intervention, Lima Group members strongly rejected ‘any threat or course of action that implies a military intervention in Venezuela’ (15 April 2019); they maintained this position when Trump threatened US military action.
As the political stalemate continued in Venezuela, the Lima Group began to support a negotiated political solution, which the US rejected, still being focused on regime change through a coup. After Guaidó’s failed uprising on 30 April, the group appealed to Cuba to help with negotiations. Trump’s Latin America team hated this; it now includes Elliott Abrams, a cold-war hawk who defended Central American death squads in the 1980s and lied to Congress about his involvement in the Irangate scandal.
Abrams and other officials claimed (without evidence, according to the US intelligence services) that Cuba had thousands of troops and intelligence agents in Venezuela and was propping up Maduro. After Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau reached out, on behalf of the Lima Group, to the Cuban authorities to ask for help in negotiations, US Vice-President Mike Pence phoned, keen to educate him about Cuba’s ‘malign influence’ on Venezuela.
The divisions widened when Lima Group members refused to implement economic sanctions against Venezuela as Washington demanded. Even the US’s most docile rightwing allies in Latin America do not want the extreme interventionism promoted by Trump’s team. It does not help that US National Security Advisor John Bolton recently praised the Monroe Doctrine (a 200-year-old worldview that justified US imperialism in the Americas), nor that he said on Fox Business that Venezuela’s vast oil reserves were a key motivation for US intervention because it would ‘make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela’ (28 January 2019).
These geopolitical differences run parallel to economic ones. Some of the new rightwing leaders of Latin America were eager for free trade agreements with the US when they came to power. The election of a Republican president with protectionist tendencies was a disappointment. New trade agreements haven’t been discussed during bilateral meetings.
Trump has shown little interest in nurturing relations with his allies in Latin America. He has cancelled trips to the region, two to Colombia and one to the eighth Summit of the Americas in Peru, even though the agenda for that meeting — focused on ousting Maduro — seemed designed to appeal to the US State Department. So far, his only official trip to Latin America has been to Buenos Aires, for the December 2018 G20 summit.
Trump antagonises friends and foes alike. On 29 March he sharply criticised Colombia’s far-right president Iván Duque as having ‘done nothing’ to stem the cocaine industry, harsh words that horrified the US foreign policy establishment, which considers Colombia to be a crucial political and military ally.
Trump officials have sought to ease the friction he has created, and have travelled frequently to Latin America. Vice-President Mike Pence has made five trips. Mike Pompeo travelled to Colombia and Mexico as CIA Director and then made six more trips during his first year as Secretary of State. National Security Advisor John Bolton has most notably visited Brazil where he called far-right president Jair Bolsonaro a ‘like-minded partner’.
These efforts count for little: Trump’s disdain for Latin America complicates the geopolitical position of rightwing leaders who cannot envision international relations without US leadership; they try to contribute to that leadership in the hope of benefitting from it. This can be seen in the very meagre record of the regional groupings conservative governments have formed since the rightward shift. The Pacific Alliance doesn’t have much to show for its eight years; its biggest achievement is the integration of the stock markets of its members in a common trading platform, but this has failed to boost their economies.
The biggest rightwing bloc, the Lima Group, is a one-trick pony focused on Venezuela. It is trapped between its support for a regime change in Caracas and the extreme stance of the US, and so has remained on the sidelines of the most promising efforts towards a negotiated solution, led by Norway. The newest group is the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America, Prosur, founded in March 2019 by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay and Peru, which all have rightwing governments; it was set up essentially to discredit Unasur.
But is opposition to political, social and geopolitical policies of the left enough to constitute a political programme? The Venezuelan crisis seems to be the only factor uniting conservatives in the Americas. What will happen to this alliance if the Venezuelan problem is ever resolved?
- Alexander Main is director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC.
Copyright ©2019 Le Monde diplomatique — used by permission of Agence Global
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