U.S. warns of foreign meddling in Latin America amid regional tensions

The Organization of American States’ 49th General Assembly is taking place in Medellin, Colombia.
The Organization of American States’ 49th General Assembly is taking place in Medellin, Colombia. Courtesy: OAS

The United States is increasingly concerned about foreign influence in Latin America, including the growing role of Russia, Cuba and China, the U.S. assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Kimberly Breier, said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Organization of American States General Assembly in Medellin, Colombia, Breier said the arrival of a Russian military ship in Cuba this week underscored the threat.

While Russia is sending a military vessel to the region, the U.S. is sending the USNS Comfort hospital ship, she said.

“That contrast tells a very powerful story about the role of external actors in the region,” she said.

While she accused Cuba and Russia of “propping up” the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, she also said the U.S. is keeping an eye on China’s role in the region and its “debt diplomacy and lack of respect for the rule of law.”

“This external actor concept goes directly to Venezuela but it goes beyond that as well,” she said.

The comments come as Washington has been trying to ratchet up pressure on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — but seeing its efforts blunted by outside forces. And there were growing signs of division within the hemisphere, too.

As the General Assembly kicked off Thursday, representatives tussled with the issue of Venezuela’s representation at the conference.

Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro began withdrawing his country from the OAS in 2017 and that process was finally complete in April. Even so, Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaidó — recognized by Washington and more than 50 other countries — named his own representative to the hemispheric body.

That didn’t go down well with certain members. The Uruguayan delegation quit the assembly in protest, saying it feared its presence might legitimize the Guaidó government.

Uruguayan Vice Foreign Minister Ariel Bergamino accused the OAS of ignoring its own charter and more pressing problems — like poverty, violence, freedom of speech and migration — to further punish Maduro.

“The OAS has much to do, we all have much to do, and we should be more pluralistic and balanced in our preoccupations,” he said, before leaving the assembly.

Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, among others, also raised objections to Guaidó’s representative, Gustavo Tarre.

“Venezuela is not a member of the OAS, so the credentials, as presented, [violate] the rules and charter of the OAS,” Grenada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter David, said. “All decisions emanating [from the session] we will have difficulty with.”

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Despite the rift, Tarre kept his spot and the U.S. delegation said the majority of the 34-nation body was on the right side of history.

“Uruguay is a sovereign country, so if they want to leave the assembly, then leave,” said the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo. “But the vast majority support democracy, support liberty and support the legitimate government of Juan Guaidó.”

Venezuela has had dueling presidents since January. That’s when Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, announced that it was his constitutional duty to assume the presidency as he accused Maduro of clinging to power through fraudulent elections.

While Guaidó, 35, enjoys broad international support, he controls no branches of government and has no real power. Maduro, 57, who has been shunned by much of the international community, commands the allegiance of the army and the courts.

The United States has repeatedly said “all options” are on the table when dealing with Maduro, but it has largely relied on increasingly painful economic measures.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury slapped two former Venezuelan officials with sanctions: the former president of the National Electric Corporation, Luis Alfredo Motta Dominguez, and the deputy minister of finance, investments, and strategic alliances for the Ministry of Electric Power, Eustiquio Jose Lugo Gomez.

“The illegitimate Maduro regime exploits the public trust by plundering Venezuelan assets, enriching themselves, and watching idly as basic public systems needlessly and catastrophically fail,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Treasury will continue to target officials who exacerbate corruption at the expense of the Venezuelan people and knowingly fail to provide basic public services.”

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Asked about fears that the sanctions are exacerbating an already dire economic crisis in Venezuela, Breier said the measures are directed at “elements that support the regime and not the Venezuelan people.”

“I think we have been very careful, we have been very targeted and we will continue on this path,” she said.

Maduro blames the sanctions — particularly measures against the oil and financial sectors — for starving the country of money it needs to import food and medicine.

So far the sanctions haven’t produced the mass military and government defections that Maduro opponents were hoping for. But Breier defended their efficacy, saying they will eventually lead to Maduro’s downfall.

“I don’t know when the day and the time will be, but the outcome is inevitable,” she said.