The policy of the U.S. president in Latin America is shaped by old acquaintances.
As is often the case with ideas that pass through history (look at the wall that U.S. President Donald Trump wants to build on the border with Mexico), the famous Axis of Evil that marked the George W. Bush era proved to be simply rhetoric.
Bush delivered these words for the first time during the State of the Union speech in 2002, referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The words went around the whole world as if they synthesized all reflections for the countermeasures and risks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Years later, however, one of Bush’s speechwriters, David Frum, tells in his memoirs that the wording was simply trying to create an argument for Iraq's invasion.
Before this, the hawks in Bush's inner circle created a feeling of the inevitability of the Iraq war in the speech. One of them was the third under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, the 53-year-old John Robert Bolton. He was appointed to the post on the recommendation of the vice president, Dick Cheney, and became famous with his statement that there is no United Nations: “There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world and that is the United States," he said.
Now, 17 years later, Bolton again has a leadership position, this time as national security advisor to Trump. And so when he included Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua in a speech in Miami last November in his definition of the “Troika of Tyranny,” this evoked memories of the old Axis of Evil, but as a Cold War version. “We are also confronted once again with the destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism. In Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua we see the perils of poisonous ideologies," stressed Bolton.
The attack against Nicolas Maduro reminds many of the operation in Iraq. Over 40 countries – all European powers except Italy and all Latin American powers except Mexico and Uruguay – take Washington's side against the authoritarian regime of Maduro, recognizing the opposition's leader and chairman of the national assembly as the sole legitimate president of Venezuela. The military intervention option has not been discussed yet, even though Washington made it clear that this is also one of the options on the table.
The battle reveals Trump's wider plan for Latin America. Bolton said it openly during the speech in Miami: "This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the western hemisphere," he said. "The United States now looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall: in Havana, in Caracas, in Managua," he added. On the same day, new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela were announced.
Exchange and cooperation exist among these countries and Trump's administration can thwart these through sanctions, suffocating economically the lungs of the petroleum industry. Venezuela delivered cheap crude oil to Cuba (under Hugo Chavez it sold 115 thousand barrels per day with large discounts). At the same time, Raúl Castro's regime protected Caracas with its intelligence services.
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, a great opponent of Maduro, argues that 45,000 Cubans are in Venezuela and designated them an "occupation force." In turn, Nicaragua receives support from Maduro's regime. Samantha Sultoon, an analyst at the Atlantic Council and an expert on sanctions, gave an example of the domino effect on sanctions in a recent article. With the tightening of sanctions, "Nicaragua's longtime benefactor was forced to cut its own aid of up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually compelling Ortega to make domestic cuts of his own. April's announcement of a decrease in public pensions eroded much of his public support," notes Sultoon. The sanctions on Jan. 28 against the oil company PDVSA* affect its Nicaraguan branch Alabinsa directly.
“The calculations which the White House is likely to make during Trump 's administration are that by the downfall of Venezuela's regime and cutting off subsidies in Cuba the situation will deteriorate significantly, which can lead to the downfall of Castro's regime. But there is no guarantee that this will happen. We know that Cuba survived the period after the collapse of USSR in the 1990s of the last century, and we know that this regime can survive extreme economic conditions,”** notes Juan Carlos Hidalgo, an analyst of Latin America at the Cato Institute in Washington. In his opinion, however, there is a greater chance in the Venezuelan case for the fall of Maduro and Chavism.
The Shadow of China and Russia
At the start of his presidency in the White House, Trump halted a thaw in the relationship with Cuba that his predecessor President Barack Obama had launched, disappointed by the weak results of the sanctions strategy. Trump restricted travel to the island and vetoed trade with the military conglomerate (which comprises 60 percent of the country's economy). The sanctions against Venezuela and Nicaragua were also tightened for human rights violations and for drug trafficking. Sources in the administration report that new sanctions are being considered.
"We are aware of the relations among these countries and the fact that what is happening in one will affect the others, but when we are planning the sanctions program against one country, we do it in accordance with its specific situation," explains a senior official in Trump's administration.
The U.S. offensive against Maduro, Cuba and Nicaragua is likely to counteract the influence of China and Russia in the region. Since 2007 the Asian giant has invested more than $62 billion in Venezuela, mainly in the form of loans, according to data from Bloomberg.
Russia is Venezuela's second largest trading partner after China and its biggest creditor and also a large weapons supplier. There is no official data, but according to some estimates Russia and the state oil company Rosneft have invested between $17 and $20 billion in Venezuela since 2006.
Trump's administration also believes that Venezuela has turned into a narco-state that provides resources to the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. This is the element that defines Venezuela as a threat to the national security of the United States and supports the idea that "all options are on the table,” including the military.
For the time being, Maduro has the support of the army’s chiefs. "We will continue to speak with governments around the world, urging them to get on the right side of this issue," said Elliott Abrams, U.S special envoy to Venezuela, last week. He was one of the biggest ideologists of Nicaragua policy during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and was convicted, then acquitted, for lying in the Iran-contra affair, the sale of weapons to the Iranian government for illegal financing of anti-Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Trump's policy in Latin America is shaped by old acquaintances.
*Editor's Note: PDVSA refers to Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., the Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas company.
**Editor's Note: The above quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.