Is Trump Making a Mistake by Furthering His Footprint in Latin America? - Pacific Standard

Is Trump Making a Mistake by Furthering His Footprint in Latin America?

Analysts worry the White House's aggressive posturing will unwittingly boost Venezuela's embattled administration.
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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks before the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th, 2014.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks before the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th, 2014.

The Trump administration's saber-rattling against Caracas is ostensibly aimed at boosting Venezuelan democracy amid the country's long-running political crisis. But Washington's threat of inserting itself into yet another foreign conflict could backfire, analysts warn, namely by providing fodder to an embattled Maduro government in its attempt to unite Latin America against American interventionism.

And it's not only Venezuela that faces grimmer prospects with Donald Trump at the helm of the free world; world-diplomacy watchers warn that none of the international conflagrations faced by the Trump administration show any sign of improving under his presidency. What's worse, in a presidency sold to the American public as one that would draw the United States back from foreign conflicts, it seems Washington is endeavoring to carve new inroads in Latin America at a time when the U.S. faces unprecedented challenges in Asia and the Middle East.

The administration of Nicolás Maduro has, in recent months, faced heightened conflict with opposition protestors calling against his government's moves to consolidate power as the country's economy falters. The Maduro administration continues to violently crush the protests, which it says amount to a U.S.-backed attempted coup, and scores of demonstrators have been killed and jailed.

Trump said last week that military action against the Venezuelan government was not out of the question. Vice President Mike Pence further roiled Caracas when, at the start of his Latin America tour in Colombia, he said that Washington would use political and economic power to address the conflict.

But Trump has already played all possible hands in Venezuela, says Karen Alter, a political science professor at Northwestern University whose work has often focused on Latin America.

"The Trump administration has already taken some effective action: It has barred access for certain Venezuelan officials to the U.S. and to their banks and markets they can access in the U.S. The only other effective action would be to stop consuming Venezuelan oil," she says. "Barring oil imports would be easier said than done, if only because firms make their own decisions. I doubt this will happen. Not only would Rex Tillerson not support any comment about an oil company moderating its behavior—Exxon Mobile famously circumvented U.S. sanctions against doing business in Russia, but Trump himself has made a policy of doing business with very bad political leaders."

Further promises of U.S. action there are upending the little good Washington did do, Alter adds. "What they fail to realize is that their tough talk is a gift to Maduro—offering evidence that America is a threat. This talk does more harm than good."

That, traditionally, has been how Washington's tough talk is interpreted by Caracas for Venezuelan audiences. And it's exactly how Maduro responded: He called a protest against what he called U.S. imperialism in Caracas Monday that drew throngs of participants.

"What they fail to realize is that their tough talk is a gift to Maduro—offering evidence that America is a threat."

And Maduro is seeing a sudden surge in governments across Latin America supporting him against Trump—even from those nations that are typically seen as adversaries. It seems even those who want Maduro knocked out aren't willing to let Trump deliver the blow.

In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos—himself often a Caracas critic—urged Pence not to intervene in the conflict. Santos' warning was echoed around Latin America—in Mexico City, in Lima, and beyond. "To judge from the response to Pence's recent comments, it would rally all of Venezuela's neighbors, who have no good reason to love Maduro, over to his side," says Anthony Pagden, a University of California–Los Angeles political science professor whose work has focused on Latin America and the political theory of empire.

But with the White House ignoring those pleas, the Trump administration is playing directly into Maduro's hands. What Washington has failed to take into consideration is the negative reception U.S. interventionism—the kind Trump promised on the campaign trail to avoid at all costs—receives internationally.

"Any time the U.S. has moved to sanction or otherwise pressure Venezuela's government, Venezuela has skillfully pointed to the specter of imperial designs to rile up its base at home and its allies abroad. Instead, other regional actors have, of late, taken the lead in pressuring Venezuela's government diplomatically to change its behavior," says Alejandro Velasco, professor of modern Latin American history at New York University and author of Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela. "For the U.S. to discount and sidestep those efforts by moving unilaterally against Venezuela would mean untold harm to the country's population in the short and medium run, and yet more confirmation, for a new generation, that the U.S. views the region as little more than its backyard to do with as it pleases."

A pro-government activist holds a portrait depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a demonstration to show their support for the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on August 14th, 2017.

A pro-government activist holds a portrait depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a demonstration to show their support for the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on August 14th, 2017.

The mess Trump's tough talk has made over Venezuela is par for the course internationally, analysts say.

"So far, none of the crises the Trump administration inherited or has faced internationally have shown any signs of improving or moving toward any kind of resolution," Velasco says. "If anything, they have grown worse, alienating erstwhile allies while courting the support of [one-time] adversaries. On that score alone, it is difficult to conclude that Trump's foreign policy has been successful."

UCLA's Pagden agrees. "It smacks very much of the saber-rattling in North Korea. In both cases it can serve only to strengthen regimes which wish to represent themselves to their peoples as the only protection against an 'evil empire' waiting only for the opportunity to destroy them," he says. And in Syria, a sudden deluge of tough talk against the administration of President Bashar al-Assad "never came to anything and now seems to have been largely abandoned."

"From abroad, no matter where you are the story seems to be the same: ineffectual, imprecise, ill-considered bombast followed by silence a then a sudden shift to something else usually something personal," Pagden says. "In general, however, the overall impression is that Trump and his advisors have no foreign policy objectives at all. But then you do not need me to tell you that."

It would be ill-advised to continue that pattern in Latin America, Pagden warns.

"It might also be wise to remember Bolivar's departing remark that attempting to govern in Spanish-America was like 'ploughing the ocean,'" he says, referring to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader credited with earning independence from Spain for many Latin American countries.

As the Trump administration fumbles its foreign policy, it appears that even Maduro's critics are quick to offer the U.S. a history lesson.

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