Strongmen Have the Edge with Trump. Why Not Maduro? – Commentary

Strongmen Have the Edge with Trump. Why Not Maduro?

Michael Shifter and David Toppelberg | The New York Times

Nicolás Maduro

WASHINGTON — Since President Trump took office almost 18 months ago, commentators have remarked on his apparent affinity for strongmen. As The Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman commented, “Trump […] seems to prefer dictators to our democratic allies everywhere.”

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that Mr. Trump can’t have acceptable working relations with democratic leaders, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France. But, in general terms, he seems more at ease with — and respectful of — authoritarian leaders such as the presidents Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and, of course, Vladimir Putin of Russia. In short, strongmen have the edge.                         

Last month’s summit in Singapore with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, sparked especially strong reactions. In an interview last week, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen echoed Mr. Friedman’s comments, asserting that Mr. Trump, “has a desperate desire to be liked and affirmed by the dictators of the world.” As Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, yet another round of media commentary on the president’s penchant for antidemocratic leaders can be expected.

There is, however, one glaring exception to this troubling pattern: Mr. Trump cannot seem to abide strongmen when it comes to Latin America.

On Cuba policy, Mr. Trump reversed the rapprochement — President Barack Obama’s chief legacy in Latin America — with renewed sanctions “until freedoms are restored”. Soon after the 2016 election, Mr. Trump celebrated the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s death and has used aggressive rhetoric against Fidel’s brother Raul Castro, who recently stepped down from the island’s presidency but remains very powerful.

This exception is similarly evident in Venezuela, which is in desperate straits and where an almost two-decade slide into dictatorship culminated in a brazenly stolen election in May. – While Venezuela’s sham election was rightly condemned; Russia’s, two months earlier, elicited a congratulatory phone call from the president. – Indeed, Mr. Trump reportedly discussed invading Venezuela to forcefully remove the strongman Nicolás Maduro from power. Fortunately, White House advisers and Latin American leaders told the president repeatedly that threatening military action would be unwise and counterproductive.

Mr. Trump, though not known for consistency, seems to view the region as fertile ground to impose his will without any cost, as the United States’ strategic prerogative and “backyard”. Such an outmoded mind-set marks a sharp reversal to what had been a welcome tendency in the post-Cold War era to treat countries in the region as equal partners.

Last February, for instance, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the Monroe Doctrine — which in 1823 unilaterally established the region as an exclusive United States sphere of influence and was often used to justify American interventionism in Latin America — “as relevant today as it was the day it was written” while paradoxically calling China’s growing presence in the region “imperial”.

Mr. Trump should be commended for coming down hard on Latin America’s strongmen. But by also resurrecting an impulse for unilateral action and indifference to the region’s needs and concerns, he is making it more difficult to help bring about the democratic change he ostensibly seeks.

The president’s get-tough rhetoric on Latin America can in part be traced to the pressures of domestic politics on foreign policy, especially toward our southern neighbors. Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign was built on demonizing many Latin countries — Mexico in particular — for everything from “unfair” trade surpluses to crime. Another domestic political factor is the Cuban-American community, which has historically played an important role in the United States Cuba policy. Today, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is enormously influential in shaping Mr. Trump’s hawkish position on Latin America. Indeed, domestic politics have long dominated the United States-Latin American relations not only on Cuba, but on immigration and antidrug policy as well.

Make no mistake: The Trump administration deserves credit for increasing pressure — both through expanded sanctions and diplomatic means — on the Maduro regime, a policy that actually began under Mr. Obama.

Cuba’s human rights record is also appalling, and the White House should continue to push for democratic reforms. But for Latin American leaders of all political stripes, Mr. Trump’s loose talk of military action in Venezuela evokes memories of American imperialism and gives ammunition to Mr. Maduro’s false claim that the collapse of his country is because of a United States-led conspiracy.

Similarly, Latin Americans wonder how reverting to a failed policy of isolating and punishing Cuba will now result in any positive change on the island.

Mr. Trump’s berating of Latin American strongmen and the revival of outdated foreign policy doctrines is not a viable strategy to engage the region. Instead, the president’s antipathy toward dictatorship in Venezuela and Cuba seems to be motivated more by political ideology and his combative instincts.

As the former ambassador to Panama John Feeley put it, “We’ve taken a step back in tone (…) Latins believe that Mr. Trump and his senior officials have no real interest in the region, beyond baiting Mexico and tightening the screws on Cuba and Venezuela.” This incoherent mix of toughness and indifference is having serious consequences for the United States relations with Latin America.

It is hard to square the president’s acquiescence — indeed, frequent praise — for strongmen throughout the world with his professed concern for democracy and human rights in Venezuela and Cuba.

Mr. Trump seems less troubled by antidemocratic attitudes and practices in friendly governments in, for example, Honduras. United States interests — in Latin America and elsewhere — are better served when our government engages authoritarian regimes using a combination of pragmatism and coalitions in tandem with regional allies to press for democratic reforms and human rights.

The good news today is that the region’s strongmen are increasingly discredited. Most Latin American governments share Mr. Trump’s distaste for Mr. Maduro; and see Raul Castro as a relic of a past era. But they roundly reject an American president intruding into their politics or intervening militarily anywhere in the region.

As long as Mr. Trump continues to view the region through an obsolete lens, it will be even harder to convince other Latin American nations to cooperate with the United States and find solutions to issues like trade, drugs and immigration. This is costly not only for United States-Latin Americans relations, but for fulfilling Mr. Trump’s own agenda at home.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On July 18, 2018 at 11:19 am

    I don’t know, But this may have something to do with it …!?!?!!

    Rex Tillerson Got Burned in Venezuela. Then He Got Revenge.

    Nick Miroff | The Washington Post

    Rex Tillerson hadn’t been CEO of ExxonMobil very long when the late president Hugo Chavez made foreign oil companies in Venezuela an offer they couldn’t refuse. Give the government a bigger cut, or else.

    Most of the companies took the deal. Tillerson refused.

    Chavez responded in 2007 by nationalizing ExxonMobil’s considerable assets in the country, which the company valued at $10 billion. The losses were a big blow to Tillerson, who reportedly took the seizure as a personal affront.

    Only Tillerson didn’t get mad, at least in public. He got even.

    Flash forward to May 2015. Just five days after former military general David Granger was elected president of the South American nation of Guyana, unseating the country’s long-ruling leftist party – ExxonMobil made a big announcement.

    In the deep blue waters 120 miles off Guyana’s coast, the company scored a major oil discovery: As much as 1.4 billion barrels of high-quality crude. Tillerson told company shareholders the well, Liza-1, was the largest oil find anywhere in the world that year.

    For tiny Guyana (population 800,000), the continent’s only English-speaking country and one of its poorest, it was a fortune-changing event, certain to mark a “before and after” in a country long isolated by language and geography.
    There was just one problem with this undersea bonanza. Venezuela claimed the waters — and the hydrocarbons beneath them — as its own.

    Clearly drilling in the disputed area was potentially a good business decision for ExxonMobil, not some sort of elaborate revenge scheme by its CEO.

    But revenge had been served. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, was livid.

    “There is a brutal campaign against Venezuela of lies, funded by ExxonMobil … which has great influence at the Pentagon,” Maduro declared, calling the dispute an attempt to corner Venezuela and precipitate “a high-intensity conflict”.

    Tillerson has not commented publicly on the Guyana find or the Venezuela dispute.

    He was scheduled to visit Guyana in 2016 when President-elect Donald Trump nominated him for secretary of state, forcing him to cancel the trip, according to local press reports.

    And so the story goes …..

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