Trump mil­i­tary op­tion con­cerns Latin na­tions

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Joshua Goodman

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s talk of a “mil­i­tary op­tion” in Venezuela risks alien­at­ing Latin Amer­i­can na­tions that over­came their re­luc­tance to work with the Repub­li­can leader and had adopted a com­mon, con­fronta­tional ap­proach aimed at iso­lat­ing Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s em­bat­tled gov­ern­ment.

Well be­fore Maduro him­self re­sponded, gov­ern­ments in Latin Amer­ica with a long mem­ory of U.S. in­ter­ven­tions were quick to ex­press alarm over what sounded to them like saber­rat­tling. Even Colom­bia — Wash­ing­ton’s staunch­est ally in the re­gion — con­demned any “mil­i­tary mea­sures and the use of force” that en­croach on Venezuela’s sovereignty.

Maduro has long ac­cused Wash­ing­ton of hav­ing mil­i­tary de­signs on Venezuela and specif­i­cally its vast oil re­serves, the world’s largest. But those claims were dis­missed by many as an at­tempt to dis­tract from his gov­ern­ment’s fail­ures to curb prob­lems such as wide­spread shortages, spi­ral­ing in­fla­tion and one of the world’s worst homi­cide rates.

“For years he’s been say­ing the U.S. is pre­par­ing an in­va­sion, and ev­ery­one laughed. But now the claim has been val­i­dated,” said Mark Feier­stein, who served as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s top na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser on Latin Amer­ica. “It’s hard to imag­ine a more dam­ag­ing thing for Trump to say.”

The tim­ing of Trump’s re­marks could not be worse, com­ing on the eve of a four-na­tion Latin Amer­ica trip by Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence in­tended to show­case how Wash­ing­ton and re­gional part­ners can work to­gether to pro­mote democ­racy in the hemi­sphere.

Last week in Peru, for­eign min­is­ters from 12 Western Hemi­sphere na­tions con­demned the break­down of democ­racy in Venezuela and re­fused to rec­og­nize a new, pro-gov­ern­ment as­sem­bly cre­ated by Maduro that is charged with rewrit­ing the con­sti­tu­tion but is seen by many as an il­le­git­i­mate power grab.

The United States did not take part in the meet­ing, a show of def­er­ence to coun­tries his­tor­i­cally mis­trust­ful of heavy-handed poli­cies out of Wash­ing­ton. Sus­pi­cion and re­sent­ment linger in many cor­ners of the re­gion, a re­flec­tion of years past when U.S. troops did in fact in­vade parts of Latin Amer­ica to oust left­ist lead­ers or col­lect un­paid debts.

Yet a num­ber of lead­ers, amid prod­ding from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, have lately been over­com­ing their re­luc­tance to in­ter­vene in a neigh­bor’s in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal af­fairs af­ter look­ing the other ways for years on Venezuela.

For the first time, lead­ers have started us­ing the Dword — dic­ta­tor­ship — to de­scribe Venezuela’s gov­ern­ment and have re­called their am­bas­sadors from Caracas in protest. Peru on Fri­day went so far as to ex­pel Venezuela’s am­bas­sador, and re­cently the South Amer­i­can trade bloc Mer­co­sur sus­pended Venezuela for vi­o­lat­ing the group’s demo­cratic norms.

Even more sur­pris­ing, with the ex­cep­tion of close ide­o­log­i­cal al­lies such as Cuba and Bo­livia, no coun­try spoke out against Trump’s de­ci­sion to slap sanc­tions on more than 30 Venezue­lan of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Maduro him­self, de­spite past crit­i­cism of sim­i­lar uni­lat­eral ac­tions.

Not even the frus­tra­tion over Trump’s de­ci­sion to par­tially roll back Obama’s open­ing to Cuba — a diplo­matic thaw that was ap­plauded across the re­gion’s po­lit­i­cal spec­trum — or his con­stant talk of build­ing a bor­der wall to curb il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion got in the way of pre­sent­ing a united front to­ward Maduro.

But the swift re­ac­tion to Trump’s “mil­i­tary” re­marks shows there is no ap­petite in the re­gion for U.S. troops to get in­volved.

On Sat­ur­day the na­tions of Mer­co­sur, which in­cludes Brazil and Ar­gentina, is­sued a state­ment say­ing “the only ac­cept­able means of pro­mot­ing democ­racy are di­a­logue and diplo­macy” and re­pu­di­at­ing “vi­o­lence and any op­tion that im­plies the use of force.”

U.S. en­gage­ment with other coun­tries has not been con­stant and may have ben­e­fited more from the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion in Venezuela than any con­certed diplo­matic out­reach. U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son skipped a key meet­ing of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States in June, de­priv­ing some Caribbean coun­tries that de­pend on Venezue­lan oil ship­ments of the po­lit­i­cal cover they were look­ing for to aban­don their sup­port for Maduro.

Un­der the ad­vice of Pence and Florida Repub­li­can Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Trump ap­pears to have taken a per­sonal in­ter­est in Venezuela and even met at the White House with the wife of a prom­i­nent jailed op­po­si­tion leader. That in turn has em­bold­ened Maduro op­po­nents who have been protest­ing for four months de­mand­ing he give up power.

Their ef­forts could be un­der­mined if Maduro ex­pands his crack­down on dis­sent, ar­gu­ing as he has in the past that their tac­tics are a pre­lude to a U.s.-backed coup. Only this time he can point to Trump’s words as ev­i­dence.

Pence ar­rives in Colom­bia on Sun­day to be­gin his Latin Amer­ica tour, dur­ing which dis­cus­sions on how to deal with Venezuela were ex­pected to fea­ture promi­nently.

In­stead he may now be forced to do dam­age con­trol, said Christo­pher Sa­ba­tini, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Global Amer­i­cans, a web­site fo­cused on U.S. pol­icy in the re­gion.

“He’s about to get an ear­ful,” Sa­ba­tini said. “The ea­ger­ness of Trump and some peo­ple around him to mouth off with­out any idea of con­text is re­ally dam­ag­ing not only to U.S. pol­icy but also re­gional sta­bil­ity.”

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