In an administration whose foreign policy has been characterized by the president’s personal improvisation, the gelding of the State Department, and amateurish nepotism, there are one or two aspects of the Trump team’s approach that have been remarkably consistent: looking at the world through an outdated and Manichean lens of anti-communism and demonstrating a visceral disdain for multilateralism.
To the extent the administration has a comprehensive Latin America policy - the so-called fight against 'the Troika of Terror' - it contains both of these elements. Trump has ordered that Obama’s Cuba policy be rolled back, reverting to the stale tactic of unilateral diplomatic isolation. For over half a century, this Cold War relic of a policy failed to produce an island-based movement to establish a democracy instead of the dictatorship in Havana, but it was the price the Cuban-American congressional delegation exacted to support Trump.
Yet when Honduras’ center-right government of President Juan Orlando Hernández changed the constitution so that he could run for re-election, something Team Trump rightly criticized in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Washington remained mute, despite the Organization of American States’ decision not to certify the election as fair and transparent. Washington's silence was also despite the claims of former National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster that “America First does not mean America alone,” there were no buyers for that empty rhetoric in Latin America. Actions speak louder than the President’s Twitter account.
But like a broken clock that tells the correct time twice a day, Trump’s policies to date regarding Nicaragua and Venezuela have been right.
The irony is that in both cases, but particularly in Venezuela, anti-multilaterist-in-chief and National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have used a multilateral approach (diplo-speak for a group effort) to help energize the Venezuelan opposition. Historians will debate where the strategy was hatched, but it is clear that, although not the scriptwriter, the United States has had a major role in this drama. And so far, it’s Oscar worthy.
It started with a video message to the Venezuelan people by VP Mike Pence on January 22 nd in which he all but welcomed National Assembly president Juan Guaido to swear himself in as interim president under Venezuela’s constitution. Guaido did so the next day, and almost immediately President Trump tweeted U.S. recognition. That was followed in short order with a statement by Pompeo, setting off a chain reaction of recognition declarations from other Latin countries that looked like intricately coordinated falling dominos. Rarely does any diplomatic maneuver move that rapidly or in such a synchronized fashion. And in all cases, it requires good multilateral coordination. That is what diplomats do and it was refreshing to see it happen successfully in this case.
To be sure, the OAS Secretary General and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro were out ahead of the United States in recognizing Guaidó’s legitimacy. However, Assistant Secretary of State Kim Breir and NSC Senior Director Maurico Claver Carone spent hours talking to counterparts in the region prior to January 23rd. Whether leading or following, they and their bosses - Pompeo and Bolton - appear to have conducted the kind of effective multilateral diplomacy that moves the policy needle and results in changes on the ground. In this case, hemispheric solidarity is contributing to the first genuine moment in the past two decades when Venezuelans might take back their country from a band of corrupt, narco-state mafia bosses. No small feat.
Great Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt announced on January 26th that the UK would recognize interim president Guaidó, and at the same time halt any gold shipments to Venezuela. The $1.2 billion held in specie by the British Central Bank represent almost 25% of the estimated $8 billion in reserves the Maduro government has, most of which is located outside the country for ease of pilfering. This crippling decision for the Maduro regime resulted from yet another multilateral lobbying led by … Bolton and Pompeo. It is an effective pincer movement to weaken Maduro by coordinating with another sovereign state instead of going at it solo.
Maduro retains the loyalty of the senior military … for now. Whether that holds will be the key to his and Venezuela’s future. But so, too, will be the actions and statements of the United States. A skeleton crew of diplomats remains in our Embassy in Caracas. They are skilled and committed, and the fact that the American flag still flies over the compound represents another small ray of hope for the Venezuelan street. But they will not be the negotiators of any final deals. That locus of power remains in the hands of the Maduro and Guaidó camps, and the Venezuelan people, who will continue to protest peaceably for new elections by the opposition.
However, the role of foreign leaders will also be critical. China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran still recognize Maduro, but none of them genuinely care for or admire the man. He has been the useful idiot for their exploitation of Venezuela in line with their interventionist interests in that country, which mostly revolve around oil.
If Trump and company decide to continue their experiment in multilateral diplomacy, might I suggest the President call Vladimir Putin. Instead of talking about the Mueller investigation, or Russia’s support for Syria’s brutal dictatorship, or its illegal occupation of the Crimea, perhaps Trump could suggest that Russia get its nose out of the Western Hemisphere and withdraw its support for a cowardly, drug dealing dictator and his cronies. They have impoverished Venezuela to a level not seen in this region ever before.
I’m sure President Trump has Putin on speed dial. That’s a call I urge him to make.