I’ll be the first to say that President Barack Obama not only could have, but should have, done more with the political capital he built up in the region to call out and mobilize collective action against the repressive regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. That could have included calling the failed state out in a UN General Assembly (UNGA) meeting and expanding targeted sanctions against the generals, political leaders and corrupt judicial officials in government.
But the increased leadership I had envisioned from President Obama doesn’t look anything like what President Donald J. Trump has done in the past three weeks.
First there was the UNGA speech. Apart from the name calling and threats directed toward Asia, there was Venezuela. At first, it wasn’t so bad. He started out by pledging his support to the Venezuelan people in their struggle for democracy:
“The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. This situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”
(Let’s temporarily forget here his earlier claim that military options were being considered in Venezuela, leaving his Ambassador to the UN visibly perplexed… not to mention the region and potential U.S. allies). No, here, taken alone, this was good. Obama could’ve, should’ve done that.
Where it went off the rails was when he said: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” There are a number of issues with that. First, despite its claims to be socialist, Chavismo has never truly been socialist. In fact, it’s been closer to fascism: hatched in the military, based on militias, and at times rife with anti-semitism—all with a heavy dose of petroleum patronage and narcotics corruption. Chavismo has never shared any of the modern progressive values that social democrats claim: LGBT rights, indigenous rights, women’s rights, etc. In fact, it has been against a number of these, including the Maduro regime’s continued refusal to respect indigenous land rights in exploration contracts.
Ultimately, left-right ideology is not so much a linear spectrum but a donut, with extreme-right and extreme-left curling around to meet each other (unfortunately without the delicious sugary glaze). Nowhere is this better evidenced than with former Argentine populist leader Juan Peron, who began his political career as a military officer promising to quash socialist labor unrest and then, while in exile, appealing to communists to join the fold, including the guerrilla Montoneros, resulting in an a bloody internecine battle when he returned. And Fidel Castro’s regime post 1959 was more a personalist/mafia/caudillo run finca than any manifestation of an ideology. Then there’s the current president of a country-who-can’t-be-named, whose appeals to nationalism and divisive rhetoric manage to blend the demands of protectionist labor unions, white supremacists, Evangelicals, and disenfranchised workers. That’s populism folks. No left or right divide; they all meet at the extremes.
But beyond the academic splitting of hairs, the real flub was what Trump’s denunciation meant for potential allies. As a region, Latin America skews left. Always has; always will. There’s no short supply of Latin American and Spanish leaders—in office, in civil society, and particularly in the human rights community—who identify themselves as socialist or social-democratic. Now, we can argue about how socialist they really are, debate whether the concentration of the means of production inevitably leads to corruption and collapse (I believe it does), and whether if that’s really the end point. But now proud social democratic leaders like Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Felipe Gonzalez and Rodrigo Zapatero (Spain) and even—possibly—Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia) are going to be much more hesitant to throw their clout behind a project that attacks the very basis of their identity and large portions of their political base.
President Trump needed to give them a little cover, especially after his off-the-cuff “military options” comment. Instead he made it even more difficult. This isn’t the way to build a coalition in the hemisphere for collective action, as frustratingly damaged as that process has become.
Then came the travel ban. On Sunday the Trump administration released its new travel restrictions, which now include North Korea, Venezuela and Chad. Together with the majority Muslim countries that he originally intended to target, the new list of eight countries looked a global basket of deplorables. The administration probably added North Korea and Venezuela to the list in a political effort to diffuse the perception that the ban specifically targets Muslims, but it looked more like a list of Trump’s “least-favorite things.”
Beside the political pretzel logic of the move, the new policy undercut the diplomatic and democratic strategy of the past Venezuelan efforts. Should Obama have blacklisted more corrupt, abusive Venezuelan public officials? Quite likely, yes. But any rational voice making that argument is now drowned out by the din of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Both Obama’s efforts to selectively target seven members of the Maduro administration and Trump’s past policies of focusing on more than 30 corrupt, abusive anti-democratic actors was an effort to try to split the regime. Basically, the goal of these targeted sanctions was pretty simple. The U.S. would close down the bank accounts and U.S. visas of individuals it could identify as being corrupt or linked to democratic violations. The strategy was multi-faceted: first, to punish the obviously guilty; second, to provide an incentive for others in the regime to either give a second thought about repression—as Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson wrote persuasively about in Foreign Policy; and third, to incentivize Maduro officials to defect, much as autocrats had done in the 1970s and 1980s in authoritarian governments across the region, sparking a wave of democratic transitions.
Now, though, Trump’s policies have become blanket restrictions, blocking any government official from traveling to the United States. The policy wipes out U.S. leverage on potential defectors—yet again leading U.S. policy in the direction of the profoundly failed U.S.-Cuba embargo policies that have helped contribute to 55 years of a Castro government—by voiding U.S. capacity to reach out to moderates within the government and eliminating the carrots proven necessary in democratic transitions around the world.
Like Cuba, Venezuela has become a zero sum game: a fractious—and in some cases democratically dubious—opposition pitted against a government that will likely do everything it can to cling to power. After President Trump’s speech at the UNGA last week, don’t be surprised if the Maduro regime digs in more than it ever has before.