Trump administration moves in Latin America go beyond the chaos of Venezuela

WASHINGTON — Sanctions. Recognition of an interim leader. Close ties with an alleged strongman.

President Donald Trump has used these strategies in a series of consequential moves in Latin America in recent months. While Trump’s Central American immigration policies have publicly defined much of his approach to Latin America, his more recent actions toward the rest of the region is a significant development in his foreign policy, particularly since the appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor.

Until Bolton’s arrival to the administration, Vice President Mike Pence as well as Jared Kushner led U.S. policy towards the region, visiting multiple times. But under Bolton and Trump’s second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the administration placed emphasis on three of the region’s leftist governments: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

A speech by Bolton last November in Miami outlined a cohesive U.S. strategy towards the region. He dubbed the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba a “Troika of Tyranny” and vowed increased U.S. pressure that will “champion the independence and liberty of our neighbors.”

“The United States looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall,” Bolton said. “The Troika will crumble.”

Since the speech, the United States sanctioned the Nicaraguan government for a reported crackdown on protests, is considering tightening the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and last month recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela.

Yet, despite its moves against the government of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, some critics say the Trump administration lacks a cohesive strategy towards the country.

Monica de Bolle, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said the administration doesn’t appear to have a clear strategy for what happens next in Venezuela. She fears a military takeover.  

“My sense is that the U.S. has absolutely no clue what to do in that circumstance. The U.S. is not prepared to deal with that if that’s the scenario that comes about, a scenario where the military’s really in charge,” she said.

In contrast to its mobilization against Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, the Trump administration embraced Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected president who has a history of incendiary remarks and is widely considered a far-right strongman.

“This is an administration that’s very U.S.-friendly,” de Bolle said of Bolsonaro’s government. “There are members of the cabinet who are actually Trump enthusiasts.”

John Dinges, a professor emeritus at Columbia University’s School of Journalism who reported on Latin America’s military governments of the 1970s and 1980s, worries of Bolsonaro’s rise.

“He’s praising the military rulers of Brazil, the ones who participated in Operation Condor,” Dinges said, referring to a Cold War plan by Latin American militaries coordinating the kidnapping and execution of dissidents and suspected Communists.

Yet the clout of Brazil’s military under Bolsonaro might prevent the country from intervening militarily along with the United States in Venezuela, according to de Bolle.

“They do not want intervention in Venezuela in any way, shape or form,” de Bolle said. “They are fine with rhetoric. They’re fine with pressuring with words. They are not fine with any kind of involvement, even if it’s supplying equipment.”

Complicating the Trump administration’s approach to leftist governments in Latin America is the leftward turn of a close U.S. ally: Mexico.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s new president, rebuked the United States and many other Latin American countries with his refusal to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.

Maduro and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel attended Lopez-Obrador’s inauguration.

Yet aside from recognizing Guaidó, the Trump administration’s main policy tool towards Latin America has been sanctions, evidenced by its Nicaragua sanctions and other sanctions against Venezuela’s oil and gold trade.

Fulton Armstrong, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America and fellow at American University, compared the recent sanctions to the longstanding U.S. embargo against Cuba.

“It’s never worked,” Armstrong said. “It has caused pain, but it hasn’t caused results. We often do these things without understanding the impact on the societies that are affected by our sanctions.”

In de Bolle’s view, the Obama administration ignored Latin America and the growing crisis in Venezuela during it’s “pivot to Asia.”

“The Obama administration’s focus was not in the region at all,” de Bolle said. “It was completely negligent… and now we are where we are.”