On the day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly turned his back on one of the pillars of U.S. foreign policy — the role of stalwart defender of human rights — brave Venezuelans were putting their lives in the line of fire to fight for civil liberties and their constitution.
“They’re killing our children,” a protester in the midst of the violence told reporters after yet another day of protests by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans met with repressive, ruthlessly violent pushback by the government. The reported death toll stands at 34 as of this writing; some of the victims were university students.
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Well on his way to consolidating absolute power, President Nicolás Maduro responded to the killings by his national guard and paramilitary forces by dancing on national television as his goons ran over protesters with armored cars and motorcycles, and shot dead a young protestor, Armando Cañizales, 17.
Hard to fathom, until now, an American administration sitting on its hands at the rights abuses next door. Cuba, invested in Maduro’s staying in power, also heightened its repression apparatus, jailing more dissidents and firing a gun at one of them.
And what was the Trump administration’s secretary of state doing?
Delivering a public speech to his staff in which he advertised to the world that “America First” foreign policy means the United States won’t stand up for human rights violations if doing so hinders the pursuit of American business and national security interests.
Pushing human rights abroad, Tillerson said Wednesday, “creates obstacles” to U.S. interests.
“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals. It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” Tillerson said.
His speech rightfully prompted swift condemnation from human rights advocates.
The Trump administration is “literally trying to erase human rights before our very eyes,” Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Margaret Huang said in a statement. “His own actions and those of his staff show a dangerous disregard for freedom, justice and equality throughout the world. It is more critical than ever that we stand up and fight back against any effort to erode human rights at home or abroad.”
In this hemisphere, his words are a blow to Venezuelan and Cuban freedom fighters — and grants permission to despots to repress without fear of sanctions and censure from the United States.
Tillerson, who afterward tried to couch his words, referring to human rights as still “an American value,” might have been an expert at the oil trade, but he’s a dunce as a statesman.
Human rights are not held dearly solely by Americans. They’re rights that belong to everyone on the planet — and countries that aren’t watchdogs and don’t denounce violations make it possible for tyrants to carry out despicable acts and perpetuate themselves in power. Like other nations that turn a blind eye to such violations, the United States will play a complicit role now.
That thought is sickening. But what else can you expect from the Department of State of a president who parades dictators through the White House and his Mar-a-Lago estate and has praised an infamous list of strongmen in whose country he does business?
Most recently, Trump lavished compliments on Rodrigo Duerte of the Philippines while he and his daughter Ivanka were featured in an ad for a Trump project in Manila plugged on a State Department blog (and taken down after it was exposed by the Washington Post). Trump also called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who has jailed thousands of political opponents and journalists — for getting a referendum passed that further solidifies his already outsized powers.
By putting the hemisphere’s despots on notice that human rights aren’t a priority for the Trump administration, Tillerson handed a gift to Maduro at his worst hour. U.S. oil interests over Venezuelan lives.
Likewise for our dictator next door, Raúl Castro — whose clan is poised to take control when the second brother exits the main political stage. Tillerson’s words are carte blanche to continue handing out more of the systematic repression that has kept the Castros in power the last 58 years.
And so, America bids adiós to the role of world leader on human rights.