The announcement last October that United States policy in the wider Caribbean region would be working from an integrated vision to deal with the region’s three collapsing dictatorships, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, was significant. The notion of a “Troika of Tyranny”, as the U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, termed it, begins to fill in a policy environment that in the past decade or more has lacked focus. For years, the U.S. has floundered in the region, evidenced by the absence of policy responses to Venezuela’s PetroCaribe regional discounted oil program, the years of tinkering in the hopes of reversing the Chavez-Maduro march into oblivion, as well as denial and then a belated recognition that an expanding geopolitical presence in the region by China has consequences.
Why does it matter?
While this may be in dispute among U.S. officials, the security challenge of our time involves the defense of norms and values, and by extension, international institutional arrangements that have helped secure U.S. national interests in the post-WWII era. Look no further than the Caribbean Basin to see a demonstration of what a reversal means for the United States. The existence and persistence of the “Troika” is essentially a manifestation of the episodic interest of senior policy leaders spanning several U.S. administrations—both Democrat and Republican. While having finally characterized the threat is a good beginning, the current administration is vulnerable to the challenges of operationalizing it in policy terms, let alone sustaining it.
A troika? Yes. A monolith? No.
For starters, any success in Cuba in particular involves foundational alterations of politics. The Obama-era opening toward Cuba, while markedly one-sided, was rolled back early by the new administration (NSPM-5) in hopes of more directly containing the Cuban regime. The practical effect of the retreat has not so much been a reversal of policy as one left in suspense.
Meanwhile, a democratic recovery in Venezuela—a more probable nearer-term scenario than Cuba—will entail humanitarian, political, and economic logistics on a grand scale. 2019 begins with over fifty countries rejecting the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro’s new term in office—in tandem with a U.S. push and a growing number of other countries recognizing the opposition-controlled National Assembly as the legitimate authority, let alone rumblings of discontent within the military services. The demographic hemorrhaging (3 million have left the country) and an equally catastrophic economic environment (an estimated inflation rate in 2018 of 1 million percent—meaning everything is worthless) are two indicators of a situation best described by Evan Ellis of the U.S. Army College as a “criminal free-for-all… exposing the degree to which the government lost control long ago.”
As for Nicaragua, the terms of reference of the crises are not yet fully formed but the government’s repression and violence of the last nine months is not likely to end well. Still, while the Ortega regime has survived through brute force—not an uncommon tactic in Central America despite differing ideologies and scale of force—its margins of political and economic survival are narrower than those of Venezuela and Cuba.
What the U.S. is up against
In all three cases the day-after scenarios will likely not match resource expectations initially committed by the United States. At a minimum, the regional diplomatic effort—whether multilateral or bilateral—will have to be qualitatively far greater than what Washington has invested in recent years. In this regard, more nationalist governments have emerged (Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala) whose ideologies might coalesce with Washington’s own outlook, leading to the speculation of a greater readiness to tackle the likes of the “Troika of Tyranny.” But this requires strategy and leadership. The “Troika’s” existence is enmeshed in the re-energized world of both hard and sharp power emanating from China and Russia. The strategic mission of these 21st century authoritarians is to diminish the scope and relevance of U.S. policy; doing so in the Caribbean Basin harks back to dynamics of the Cold War.
The brief appearance in Venezuela in mid-December of two Russian strategic bombers along with supply transport planes was provocative. While of no immediate military value, it highlighted the degree to which Moscow is not hesitating to demonstrate its willingness to challenge Washington. For its part, China has been flexing its diplomatic and economic muscle for years, extending the reach of its increasingly controversial Belt and Road Initiative (offering up to $1tn in development funding in 70 countries) out to Trinidad and Tobago as well as Guyana, and eating away at Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic presence—flipping Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador over the past 18 months, and likely tempting several others such as Haiti and Honduras. U.S. diplomacy has expressed displeasure with these developments, but threatening to shut off U.S. assistance may not be the most constructive path. In practice, it is not clear what the U.S. has so far done to compete.
Beyond “the Troika”
The reality for U.S. policymakers is that other flashpoints exist elsewhere in the region. The most troubling may be the messy brew of endemic violence, corruption, and open challenges to the hard fought democratic gains of the last three decades in Central America’s Northern Triangle—whose byproduct of refugees and population flows northward are the main political ingredient fueling the deceptive debate over U.S.-Mexico border security. The most recent U.S. effort to address the region’s multi-layered problems, the Alliance for Prosperity, significantly increased U.S. assistance but this clearly has not achieved intended results.
Rather than energizing good governance and economic reforms, the cycle of drug and gang violence has reached epic levels in tandem with an increasingly deep decline in the rule of law and public governance. Emblematic of this environment is Guatemala’s push to shut down the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a by-product of the 1990s peace process which has given some muscle and legitimacy to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. After targeting three successive Guatemalan presidencies, it is viewed by its critics—including some Republican circles in the U.S. Congress—as having stretched beyond its mandate. Perhaps, but it is not in the long term interest of the United States to implicitly encourage overt violation of the rule of law.
Also overlooked by many are growing tensions in the southern Caribbean, an area with an enviable oil and gas bonanza in the offshore regions of the Guianas coming on stream as early as 2020. (In a sign of the complicated dynamics of the region, the windfall will also involve several U.S. companies and Chinese participation.) At its center is Guyana, the country most likely to reap the benefits. But with a population of only 750,000 and a delicate ethno-racial balance, its margins for error are thin; the country is currently embroiled in political tensions and potentially divisive elections. All of this overlaps with the long-standing Guyana-Venezuela border dispute and simmering international arbitration, with tensions rising in late December when the Venezuelan navy threatened a vessel operating on behalf of Exxon-Mobil.
Venezuela’s political implosion adds new uncertainties, let alone an expanding route for drug and arms trafficking (that stretches to Suriname as well) and the growing humanitarian impact of the crisis in Venezuela on the neighboring Caribbean islands. Although declining in intensity in recent years, these narco-trafficking and organized crime networks operating in the region intersect with a nexus of Middle East extremist groups, and overlaps with sporadic bursts of home-grown Jihadist cells in the English-speaking Caribbean, and in previous years (notably under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) measurable Iranian engagement centered on Venezuela.
Finally, one cannot overlook the quasi-permanent state of political crisis in Haiti, which faced three violent anti-corruption outbursts in 2018 alone. This comes at a time when the United Nations’ latest initiative in Haiti launched only in October 2017, MINUJUSTH (UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti), is undergoing a program review for debate at the Security Council by mid-April which is likely to lead to a reduced successor mission. Potentially central to these developments is the politicking in Washington relating to the TPS (Temporary Protected Status) status of 58,000 Haitians, whose potential forced return to Haiti would only add to the country’s crisis. In a perverse way, for a country highly dependent on foreign assistance, this would reduce the level of remittances, which 2017 World Bank data suggests was about 29 percent of the country’s GDP.
A coherent path forward inspired by history
The absence of an integrated geopolitical vision is troubling when reviewing this sampling of regional crisis-points. And this does not take into account festering domestic concerns, notably the unresolved material and psychological damage in Puerto Rico, combining the effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017 with the ensuing political malpractice in Washington. What should become evident is that this lack of focus is how the last U.S. grand strategy for the region emerged; the Reagan administration’s Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) in 1984, defined to provide tariff and trade benefits to Caribbean and Central American countries but inspired by broader strategic goals.
At the time facing multiple centers of politico-security and economic challenges (Cuba, Grenada, Jamaica, Haiti, for starters, and in Central America, Nicaragua, and insurgencies in both El Salvador and Guatemala), the virtue of the CBI was and still is that it created a coherent policy narrative (talking points if you will) across a wide span of U.S. bureaucracies. It also attracted support from U.S. state-level political and economic interests as well—Florida and neighboring Gulf states notably—and by extension, an energized U.S. private sector with counterparts in the region. It acquired Congressional buy-in, and, for a while, the budgetary support to sustain engagement. It had its detractors in the region, notably in the Caribbean, which viewed its interests being amalgamated into Central America’s messy political dynamics. Those perceptions have not changed. Politically, it ultimately suffered somewhat by association with collateral policy developments, such as White House-Congressional dispute over the Nicaraguan conflict and the Iran-Contra affair.
Nonetheless, the CBI gave rise to its own lobbying capacity (notably Caribbean-Central American Action, which recently closed its doors), and more significantly in policy terms, to a series of successor efforts—the Partnership for Prosperity and Security in the Caribbean, the Third Border Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, as well as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), the Mérida Initiative combining Mexico and Central American security concerns, and the Alliance for Prosperity focused on Central America’s Northern Triangle. For all of this policy energy, cumulatively these initiatives have not resonated with the sense of broad engagement as did the CBI. In many ways the post-CBI efforts have become an amalgamation of disparate functional issues superimposed on regional flashpoints and attendant elements of the U.S. government machinery, ultimately lacking vitality of purpose.
A promising template for a re-energized focus on the Caribbean emerged in 2016 with the passage of The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act (H.R. 4939). It tasked the Executive Branch to come up with the ensuing strategy. Issued in June 2017, this became Caribbean 2020 whose sub-title—A Multi-Year Strategy to Increase the Security, Prosperity, and Well-Being of the People of the United States and the Caribbean—is as all-encompassing and grandiose as it is somewhat pedestrian. Earnestly thought out by the State Department bureaucracy, it is in fact a long task list rather than a set of anchors articulating why and how initiatives might be pursued.
Nothing resembling Caribbean 2020 exists for Central America. But with a confirmed and capable Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (Kimberly Breier) in place since last fall, Caribbean 2020 can well become the platform for a more comprehensive vision of United States strategy in the region, in effect a Caribbean Basin Initiative 2.0. The pace of crises in the region suggests an urgent need for such an initiative.
Georges A. Fauriol is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).