After the recent departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Donald Trump administration wants to speed up the pace and achieve a transition in Venezuela “as soon as possible,” a senior State Department official told the Miami Herald.
“I think there’s a sense that we have always believed that a transition would be imminent. And we want to make sure that that actually happens,” said Carrie Filipetti, deputy assistant secretary for Cuba and Venezuela in the State Department. “Every second that goes by and there’s not a transition more people are suffering in Venezuela and the region because of all of the migration. So the president is very focused, single-mindedly focused on making sure that we can get to a transition as soon as possible.
“In the president’s mind, and in the mind of the administration as a whole, the time for transition is really now, and so you will see that urgency reflected in our upcoming policies,” she added.
Since the beginning of the year, the United States has supported the efforts, for now still unsuccessful, of National Assembly leader and self-titled president in charge Juan Guaidó to force Nicolás Maduro out of power. The embattled leader is accused of human rights violations and generating the greatest humanitarian crisis in the region.
The Bolton-led national security team supported a failed military uprising attempt against Maduro on April 30. Sanctions against Maduro and other members of the regime, the freezing of assets and measures against the state oil sector have limited the financial resources of the Maduro regime but have failed to dismantle it.
Trump has grown impatient with the issue, which has repercussions for the 2020 elections in the key state of Florida, home to the country’s largest community of Venezuelan expatriates. But according to reports, Trump also got tired of Bolton’s suggestions to use military force against Maduro.
“In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” Trump said in a tweet to defend Bolton’s surprise dismissal last week and respond to speculation about a more moderate policy concerning those countries after the adviser’s departure.
It is not clear, however, how the United States could accelerate the transition in Venezuela.
Until now, several members of the administration have maintained that military action is not part of U.S. policy, even though the U.S. has supported the activation of the Rio Treaty, which would allow Guaidó to request foreign military aid. And the U.S. continues to oppose a negotiated solution that involves calling for new elections with Maduro in power.
“That is still a solid red line with us,” Filipetti said regarding the elections under Maduro. “That has been consistent throughout our policy; I suspect it will continue to be consistent. The reason we’re in the place we’re in today is because of elections that were done under the auspices of the Maduro regime. So that’s not a solution. That’s the problem.”
On Sunday, Guaidó declared the dialogue with Maduro, facilitated by Norway, as “exhausted.” Maduro had already suspended his participation for more than a month. The issue has caused frustration with allies such as the European Union, which support a dialogue not only with Maduro but with the Cuban government.
“We have said publicly that other countries, including the EU, have been slow to implement sanctions [against the Maduro regime]. Their last round of sanctions was more than a year ago,” Filipetti said.
Regarding Cuba, “the fundamental disagreement between the United States and the EU is that we do not believe that more engagement facilitates an improvement in human rights,” she said. “In fact, we think that the previous administration’s policies are proof positive that increased engagement did not facilitate a turn towards democracy in any way, shape, or form. We saw actually a deterioration of conditions for the Cuban people.”
The United States has denounced the increase in repression under the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, the successor of Raúl Castro. The new government has persecuted not only dissidents, but also artists, academics, religious and LGBTI activists as well as independent journalists. When the representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, was on an official visit in Cuba in early September, the government arrested dozens of dissidents trying to demonstrate in public places.
To the frustration of U.S. officials, Mogherini did not mention the arrests in her statements.
Filipetti said the U.S. had asked its European counterparts to do more to defend the human rights of Cubans and impose more sanctions on the Maduro regime.
For the United States, “getting Cuba out [of Venezuela] is a key priority,” said the official, adding that President Trump will “continue to consider new options that would make that a successful outcome.”
Critics of President Trump’s policies believe that whoever permanently replaces Bolton as National Security Advisor will be more flexible about Cuba.
However, as the U.S. government considers new steps to solve the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, it has ruled out that the Cuban government is interested in playing a positive role.
““There are some countries that have actively tried to engage the Cubans on this issue,” said Filipetti. “It’s clear that the Cubans are not going to be a productive partner here.”
Canada and the European Union have tried to attract Cuba to the negotiating table about Venezuela. U.S. officials say the Cuban government is in charge of Maduro’s security, and its counterintelligence services spy on the military to avoid defections.
To pressure the Cuban government, the administration has limited travel and remittances to Cuba, has given the green light to lawsuits over properties confiscated on the island, and has sanctioned shipping companies and insurers who dare to bring Venezuelan oil to Cuba.
Cuba’s oil dependence on Venezuela is such that when a tanker did not arrive last week due to the effect of the sanctions, Díaz-Canel announced cuts in transportation and possible electricity blackouts. However, the Cuban government has insisted that it will not withdraw its support for Maduro.
“It is an existential issue for them,” Filipetti said. “They know that without Venezuela, they will have to either make a decision of finding another patron — which they probably won’t be able to find — or liberalizing and diversifying the economy, which would be contrary to their ideological principles and the principles of the revolution. So we don’t see them as changing their policy ever.”
“They will go down with the ship,” the official said. “When Maduro sinks, they will sink with it.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres.