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So, the Bolton experiment is over.
In retrospect, the sudden end of his short rein was not entirely surprising giving the clash of style and ideology with President Trump, according to some observers. Even so, his demise leaves some awkward unanswered questions about the direction of U.S. policy, in particular towards the three nations Bolton famously baptized as “the troika of tyranny” - Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Bolton was a prominent foreign policy hawk in the administration who liked to tweet threats to the socialist enemies of the United States, while raising the specter of U.S. military intervention. Trump also indulges in his fair share of saber-rattling and loves to tout U.S. military might, but at the same time he has made it clear is not a fan of sending troops abroad unless absolutely in the U.S. national interest.
One of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress, North Florida Republican, Matt Gaetz, thanked the president in a tweet for taking a stand “against endless regime change wars in Venezuela, Iran, Syria and elsewhere. Your instincts, not those of John Bolton, are ushering America to new heights of peace and prosperity.”
It appears that Bolton never convinced his boss that the use of military force was merited in Venezuela. Indeed, Trump was clearly unhappy with Bolton’s handling of Venezuela, and his misreading of the Venezuelan political opposition and its hapless efforts to overthrow the outlaw regime of Nicolas Maduro.
“It became clear the President felt he had been oversold on the policy by Bolton and his staff,” said former U.S. ambassador John Feeley, a Univision political consultant.
"Way out of line"
Trump made no bones about it, telling reporters this week, “I disagreed with John Bolton on his attitudes on Venezuela. I thought he was way out of line and I think I've proven to be right."
While most insiders attribute his firing to differences over Iran and Afghanistan policy, some speculate that Bolton’s departure could also signal a waning White House interest in bringing about regime change in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“His obsession was with Cuba, and Venezuela as a way to get at Cuba,” said Michael Shifter, president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a Washington policy advisory group. “Cuba was not a priority of this White House until Bolton came along,” he added.
In one extraordinary tweet, Bolton suggested it was time for Maduro to pick “a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela” to retire to – “the sooner the better.”
Bolton raised the potential of military force on several occasions, including in January by walking into the White House press briefing room sporting a pad with a note reading, “5,000 troops to Colombia,” though it was never clear if it was a deliberate bluff.
After joining the White House, Bolton had an uphill task. Officials say Trump had been been briefed that military intervention in Venezuela would be a huge and costly undertaking involving thousands of troops. But that didn't deter Bolton.
Bolton also had a tendency to exaggerate wildly. In an interview with Univision earlier this year he said Cuba had 25,000 security forces in Venezuela – perhaps as many as 50,000. Most experts, including U.S. intelligence sources, put the number at a few hundred.
“He sees the world in black and white,” said Shifter. “He inflated the numbers to justify his own personal political aims,” he added.
The president’s former National Security Adviser was a somewhat cartoonish character sporting a drooping moustache and a yellow notepad with subliminal messages about supposedly threatening troop movements. He was reportedly never part of Trump’s inner circle as one might expect a National Security Adviser to be, and in his waning days he was belittled by the president, who sometimes forgot his name, calling him “Mike Bolton.”
But joking aside, many foreign policy experts are sighing with relief after his unceremonious - and subsequently - acrimonious departure. After all, Bolton was – at least in theory if not in practice - one of the most powerful figures in the administration.
No major change
“In the end, Bolton wasn’t terribly significant,” said Frank Mora, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration and head of the Latin American studies at Florida International University (FIU). “I don’t see a whole lot of change in Venezuela and Cuba policy, in large part because it’s a political and electoral issue,” said Mora, referring to the large pro-Trump, Cuban American exile support in South Florida considered crucial to his re-election chances in a key swing state in 2020.
But Shifter and others caution that the demise of Bolton is unlikely to change U.S. policy much in Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua. While it may reduce the immediate threat of military action, which Bolton famously liked to raise as an option, experts see no likelihood of softening the tough economic sanctions against all three members of the ‘troika.’
Cuban American alarm
Bolton had built close ties with the Cuban American right wing over decades, and worked hand in glove with a well-known Cuban American hawk, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the National Security Council director for Latin America.
Bolton’s removal was thus cause for alarm in Miami’s right wing Cuban circles. Sure enough, Florida Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, was quick to jump to the White House’s defense, tweeting Thursday morning that he had spoken with Trump regarding Venezuela.
“It’s true he disagreed with some of the views of previous advisor,” Rubio, a fierce critic of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, reported of his conversation with Trump.
“But as he reminded me it’s actually the DIRECT OPPOSITE of what many claim or assume,” Rubio continued. “If in fact the direction of policy changes it won’t be to make it weaker.”
To which, Trump later responded that far from having to restrain his National Security Advisor, it was the other way around.
“In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton,” Trump tweeted. “He was holding me back!”
In an interview with Univision on Friday, Rubio recognized his frustration with the failure of U.S. efforts to remove Maduro. “ Dictatorships are very difficult to dislodge, especially when they are willing to kill their own people. But what other option is there?” he said. “T he US is doing everything it can and we are working with as many nations as we ever worked with before.”
Indeed, Bolton’s absence now leaves the policy in the hands of two experienced veterans, White House Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, also considered a hawk, but a more diplomatic and pragmatic one, and the newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of the Latin American, Mike Kozak, who has a track record of taking on rogue regimes. The State Department also recently appointed a special Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cuba and Venezuela, Carrie Filipetti, to work alongside the Chargé d'Affaires, for Venezuela, who is based in Bogota, Colombia after the U.S. embassy was closed in Caracas.
To be sure, with or without Bolton, Washington’s inability to effect change in Venezuela after raising expectations so high earlier this year, will remain a thorn in the side of the Trump administration. However, while Trump’s war of attrition against Venezuela has taken far longer than expected, there are signs that the Trump administration sanctions are beginning to bite.
“There is a lack of sympathy for the amount of time that this is taking. We need to see a transition because every day that we don't see a transition, we're seeing more Venezuelans fleeing the country, we're seeing more weapons crossing the border, we're seeing more terrorists being empowered by the Maduro regime and we're seeing more people continue to starve and suffer inside Venezuela,” Filipetti told Univision in an interview on Friday.
“ We absolutely will continue our sanctions strategy and they've been effective not just in constraining [Maduro’s] resources, they've also been effective in facilitating divisions in his regime,” she said.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported Wednesday that Venezuelan oil output fell to its lowest level in almost 75 years last month. Meanwhile, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel warned the country to expect problems with fuel shortages in the coming weeks due to US sanctions against Venezuela - Cuba's principal oil supplier.
As a sign of the pressure not easing, the United States joined 11 other Latin American nations to invoke a mutual defense treaty - the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, (TIAR by its Spanish initials) - to deal with the Maduro regime. Also known as the Rio Treaty, it commits the countries of the Western Hemisphere to respond to military aggression against any one of them.
Others hope the departure of Bolton will lead to a return to a more pragmatic, less risky, diplomatic approach to foreign policy.
“His departure will hopefully open up more creative thinking in line with Trump’s position on countries like Iran and North Korea, and lead to fundamental change in US policy toward Cuba,” said Collin Laverty who runs an educational travel business that organizes trips to Cuba.
Now that he is gone, “what we are going to see is reduced rhetoric and more realistic diplomatic talk,” said Fernando Cutz, a former advisor to Bolton’s predecessor Gen. H.R. McMaster. “It will be good for Venezuela policy to get a new start in a bipartisan direction. After all, it’s a humanitarian and democracy crisis. We don’t need talk about invasion which is unnecessary and harmful to the cause.”