President Donald Trump’s unexpected suggestion Friday that he might rely on military force to deal with Venezuela’s pressing political crisis was an astonishing statement that strained not only credulity but also the White House’s hard-won new friendships in Latin America.
“I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Trump declared to reporters in Bedminster, N.J. “This is our neighbor. We’re all over the world, and we have troops all over the world, in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they’re dying.”
Flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, whose faces betrayed some worry, Trump mentioned potential military action unprompted, almost in passing. But his pronouncement will almost certainly not be taken so cavalierly by regional allies the White House had painstakingly and successfully wooed to its side on Venezuela.
By raising the specter of military involvement, Trump appeared to ignore Latin America’s years of weary experience with CIA-backed regime toppling. Countries in the region have not so easily forgotten.
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And so, analysts uniformly agreed Friday night: Trump’s threat of an unpopular military action can only set back diplomatic efforts to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“His temperate approach over the past few weeks has helped build a regional coalition that was very vocal in denouncing and putting pressure on the Venezuelan government,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University international relations and policy lecturer. “By sounding off now, he has really made it much more difficult for Latin American governments to adhere to what is seen as the U.S. position.
“He’s also, of course, tapped — I think unwittingly — into this deep, deep, legitimate worry and fear of U.S. intervention. This doesn’t play well in Latin America.”
Trump’s off-script remark, contradicting what his own national security adviser said last week, also appears certain to provide political ammunition for Maduro, who has already been railing against “Emperor Trump,” and to muddle the message of Maduro’s weakened opponents, who have long maintained that only Venezuelans can solve Venezuela’s problems.
But above all, Trump risked losing the alliance that, in one of the most striking recent examples of Latin American unity, came together in an emergency meeting held in Peru earlier this week. It drew 17 countries that denounced the “breakdown” of Venezuelan democracy following the inauguration last week of an all-powerful new legislative body loyal to Maduro.
For once, Latin America’s biggest players came together to make the rarest of admissions: When it came to Venezuela, they agreed with Trump.
“What we have in Venezuela is a dictatorship,” Peruvian Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna said Wednesday, speaking for the regional allies and echoing the White House’s same use of the D-word a week earlier.
Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and especially Mexico don’t see eye to eye with Trump on a string of issues — including cracking down on immigration and taking a harder line on Cuba.
But with most of Washington focused on the North Korean nuclear threat, Russian election-meddling investigation and ongoing internal White House intrigue, Trump’s administration had steadily made friends on Venezuela, the one urgent foreign-policy matter that — until Friday night — hadn’t triggered frenzied cable-news debates or, so far, prompted Trump to vent on Twitter.
Their unexpected support explains in part why the White House had appeared to take a more deliberative approach to escalating its response against Venezuela. Trump promised quick economic action. But rushing to impose harsher trade or financial sanctions might have immediately alienated the countries that backed Washington’s rhetoric on Maduro.
“It would be way more efficient if we see these sanctions coming from a multilateral perspective,” said Moisés Rendón, associated director for the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That would add more pressure.”
Among Trump’s friends on Venezuela were presidents he’s spoken to by phone about Venezuela’s economic collapse, a list that includes Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peru and Juan Carlos Varela of Panama. Some of the leaders have domestic concerns of their own that align them with Trump: the prospect of having to accommodate a mass exodus of Venezuelans, for example, or fending off internal political opposition from the left.
Vice President Mike Pence is visiting four of the allies — Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama — next week, a trip that could give the Trump administration a chance to announce further steps on Venezuela, or at least solidify support following Trump’s offhand military comment.
“What we want is to restore the broken democratic order,” Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz said in Lima on Wednesday, pointedly adding that Chile “does not accept military coups, auto-coups or military uprisings.”
For years, longtime critics of Maduro and his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, knocked Latin American nations for sticking behind their increasingly authoritarian governments. The Trump administration didn’t always treat Venezuela as a priority: Tillerson skipped a crucial Organization of American States meeting in June that might have resulted in a censure against Maduro if the U.S. had exerted more diplomatic pressure. In a split with the White House, some veteran State Department diplomats continue to urge dialogue instead of sanctions.
Peru expelled the Venezuelan ambassador from Lima on Friday, but Latin American countries haven’t taken any other concrete steps; Wednesday’s Lima Declaration offered sharp language but no sanctions like the ones imposed by the U.S. The Treasury Department has sanctioned 30 Venezuelans, including Maduro, freezing their U.S. assets, banning U.S. travel and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
Still, getting leaders from so many countries that have sympathized with leftist governments in the past to go as far as they did was seen as an accomplishment by both the White House and experts on the region, who without fail argued that a broad international response to Maduro would be most effective. That the U.S. didn’t sit in on the Lima meeting only gave the White House’s position more credibility when participants gave a nod to Washington’s line.
“It’s a really important first step, in terms of Latin American countries laying the ground on how they want the Venezuelan government to change,” said Francisco Monaldi, Latin American Energy Policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “This of course has been taboo for many Latin American countries, sanctions imposed on another Latin American country.”
But Latin American countries may find it harder to impose their own sanctions than the U.S., because such measures might not clear their legislatures or might require steeper sacrifices to their own economies, warned David Mortlock, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center who wrote a report with Monaldi examining possible U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela.
“The cost to the sanctioning country becomes much more significant, and so it can get harder and requires a much more strenuous diplomatic lift to get other countries to go with you,” Mortlock said. “I suspect the United States government is laying the groundwork for that now.”
Some of that work may have been lost Friday, warned Sabatini, who said he was gobsmacked by Trump’s military talk.
“U.S. diplomats, after weeks of carefully building the groundwork for a collective international response, suddenly find their efforts completely undercut by a ridiculously over the top and anachronistic assertion,” he said. “It makes us look imperialistic and old-time. This is not how the U.S. has behaved in decades!”
Maduro has repeatedly dismissed Trump’s sanctions push as right-wing “imperialism” attempting to meddle in sovereign Venezuelan affairs. But criticism from other countries forced Maduro to divert his attention from Trump to leaders of other countries, a tacit acknowledgment he doesn’t only face pressure from the yanquis.
Over the past week, Maduro has inveighed against neighboring Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, calling him “disastrous” for public education and declaring him “obsessed” with Venezuela. He’s questioned whether Brazil, plagued by a far-reaching corruption scandal, would be able to participate in any regional peace talks “because there’s no legitimate government” there.
And he has disparaged Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over a leaked transcript of a private telephone conversation in which Trump told Peña Nieto to stop contradicting his claim that the U.S. will build a border wall.
“It’s shameful, Peña Nieto, that you let yourself be treated like that,” Maduro said, noting that the U.S. continues to deport Mexicans. Peña Nieto, Maduro continued, “behaves like an abused employee, violated by Donald Trump.”
Maduro’s taunts have not made the countries budge. If anything, they appear emboldened: Santos said in a Colombian TV interview Tuesday that “a dictatorship is under way” in Venezuela.
“They’re doing away with democracy,” Santos said, adding that he hadn’t spoken to Maduro in months, since Venezuelan troops illegally crossed into Colombian territory.
Maduro’s increased isolation has made him rely more heavily on his remaining leftist allies, chiefly Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Caribbean nations that still receive heavily discounted Venezuelan oil. All pledged their unyielding support at a Tuesday meeting in Caracas meant to counter the Lima gathering.
Maduro insisted only the heads of state criticizing him — not the actual voters who elected them — take issue with his rule. “Latin American peoples back Venezuela,” read a Thursday headline on Venezuelan state-run television.
Hours later, Maduro publicly instructed his foreign minister to at least try to set up a phone call with Trump: “Mr. Donald Trump,” he said, “here is my hand.”
Trump will “gladly” speak to Maduro, the White House said Friday night, “as soon as democracy is restored in that country.”