October 1, 2018

The Hill | Mark Feierstein 

President Trump's insistence at the U.N. General Assembly this week that "all options are on the table" to resolve the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela have raised alarms in U.S. policy circles and throughout Latin America about potential U.S. military action.

Adding to the concern is that Trump's comments were not made in isolation; they come on the heels of reports of meetings between an American diplomat and Venezuelan military officers scheming to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, as well as suggestions by regional diplomats that a military invasion of Venezuela be considered.

Nevertheless, the exploration of non-peaceful means to resolve Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crises reflects more the frustration over dimming prospects for a peaceful democratic transition there than a revival of gunboat diplomacy or U.S.-backed military coups.

Over the past few years, as the regime in Venezuela has become more repressive and the humanitarian situation there direr, the United States and other countries have escalated pressure on Maduro and his associates.

The United States, Canada and European countries have frozen the assets of dozens of senior Venezuelan military and civilian officials and limited the government's access to foreign credit. Latin American governments have denounced the regime for its authoritarian practices and called for Venezuela to be suspended from the Organization of American States.

The international community is continuously seeking ways to apply additional pressure on the regime. This week, Canada and five Latin American countries urged the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed by Venezuelan authorities, and Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unveiled a bill to spur additional U.S. and regional pressure on the Venezuelan government.

The pressure to date, however, does not seem to have weakened Maduro's hold on power. U.S. officials have reluctantly concluded that simply applying more sanctions or further isolating Venezuela diplomatically is not likely to hasten a political transition.

If the targeted sanctions were designed to create fissures within the regime, they have thus far failed; few Venezuelan officials have broken with the government.

Broader economic sanctions, such as an embargo on oil, which accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela's exports, would not accomplish much when Maduro's policies are already reducing oil production to historically low levels and driving inflation toward 1 million percent.

The international efforts to advance a political transition in Venezuela have fallen short largely because of the absence of comparable internal pressure on the regime. During the past two years, anti-government protests over the scarcity of food, medicine, water and electricity have been limited to daily, but regionally scattered, small-scale outbursts.

Preoccupied with obtaining food and medicine, most Venezuelans have limited energy or time to protest. And in the wake of the killings of more than 100 protesters last year, the public is naturally fearful of repression by security forces.

The traditional opposition leadership is no longer able to mobilize people either; leading opposition figures have been unjustly jailed or forced into exile, and others are discredited after having failed to remove Maduro through a variety of attempted means over the years, from strikes to elections to negotiations with the government.

Potential conspirators within the armed forces, meanwhile, have been detected and jailed, while other disgruntled military members have deserted. With grim prospects at home, Venezuelans are leaving in massive numbers — 2 million have left in the past three years — further reducing internal pressure on Maduro.

It is not surprising then that there are increasing calls for more extreme measures, including a coup or foreign military invasion. Sen. Rubio has echoed comments by administration officials urging the Venezuelan military to act.

To the surprise of many, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said last week that he thinks no option should be ruled out to reduce the suffering in Venezuela.

Although 12 Latin American countries quickly issued a statement rejecting the use of force in Venezuela, Colombia, the destination of most Venezuelan refugees, did not sign the document, and the new Colombian ambassador to the United States reiterated Almagro’s statement that no options should be discarded. 

As controversial as Almagro’s comments were among governments in the region, they were welcomed by many Venezuelans.

Three in 5 Venezuelan adults, including 9 in 10 supporters of the opposition and three-quarters of unaffiliated voters, would support the military removing Maduro from office, according to a national survey I conducted for GBA Strategies in June.

It is not that Venezuelans have favorable attitudes toward the armed forces — only 1 in 4 have a positive opinion of the Army or National Guard — but they believe they are the only institutions capable of ridding the country of Maduro.

That desperation also explains why about half of Venezuelans (47 percent), including 7 in 10 opposition supporters, favors a foreign invasion to remove Maduro. That is nearly as high as the share (52 percent) who supports dialogue between the government and opposition.

Again, it is not that Venezuelans are enamored of the United States these days — just over one-third (36 percent) have a favorable view of the country and fewer (29 percent) have a positive opinion of Trump — but many are open to almost any option that would relieve them of Maduro.

The danger of public discussion about military options, however, is that it could raise unwarranted expectations among many Venezuelans for an external savior and lessen their motivation to organize against Maduro.

Trump administration officials have had to tell opposition leaders that, notwithstanding Trump’s comments, the United States has no plans to invade Venezuela.

The most likely scenario in Venezuela for the foreseeable future then might be an especially undesirable one to most Venezuelans and the international community: Maduro holding on to power and a continued exodus of migrants fleeing political repression and economic deprivation.

The palatable policy tools that have helped advance democratic transitions around the world in recent years could very well fall short in Venezuela.

July 13, 2017

The Hill | Mark Feierstein 

As U.S. officials prepare to implement President Trump’s Cuba policy, the rancor over the revised course is masking an emerging bipartisan consensus over American policy toward the island. Despite declaring he was “cancelling” President Obama’s deal with Cuba, Trump’s approach maintains the vast majority of steps the Obama Administration took.

Critics of Obama had protested his efforts to increase American commercial and cultural interaction with Cuba. Hardliners excoriated him for facilitating commerce with and travel to Cuba, removing the country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, reopening embassies in Washington and Havana, and ending a migration policy that favored Cuban immigrants over those from other countries. Yet, when two of Obama’s most vociferous congressional critics, Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, joined Trump in Miami last month for his Cuba announcement, the Florida Republicans celebrated a policy that enshrines all those steps.

Trump’s limited policy changes, which complicate American travel and limit certain commercial engagement, reflect the growing constituency for engagement with Cuba. White House officials had initially anticipated a groundswell of support to reverse Obama's Cuba moves. But as debate over proposed changes to the policy ensued, officials recognized the strong support to continue the bulk of the previous Administration’s approach and even to go further and lift all trade and travel restrictions.

Polls showed that most Americans, including Republicans and Cuban-Americans, favor normalizing relations with Cuba. Fifty-five Senators supported a bill to eliminate all restrictions on travel to the island the only country where tourist travel by Americans is illegal. Republican Members of Congress lobbied the White House not to restrict trade with Cuba, and the Chamber of Commerce and its member companies advocated for maintaining commercial opportunities for American firms rather than handing over that business to companies from such countries as Russia, China, Spain, or Brazil.

Within the Administration, most policy makers favored a continuation of some form of engagement and did not want to return to a policy of trying to isolate and pressure Cuba which had failed for five decades to produce change on the island. Policy makers valued collaboration with Cuba in combating drug trafficking, protecting the environment, and developing vaccines. They also recognized that re-imposing travel limits to Cuba would hurt the people Trump says he wants to support: independent Cuban entrepreneurs who run restaurants, bed and breakfasts and markets frequented by American travelers.

Trump himself was naturally sympathetic to preserving business opportunities for American companies. Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House official, explored commercial deals in Cuba in his prior position as counsel for the Trump Organization and Trump said privately during the presidential transition that he favored Obama’s commercial opening to the island. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is skeptical of the utility of sanctions, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also advocated for preserving commercial opportunities in Cuba for American companies.

A substantial rollback, therefore, was not politically or practically feasible. As a Trump administration official conceded, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle 100 percent.” Nevertheless, Trump kept his campaign pledge to modify U.S. policy toward Cuba, though his announcement featured more harsh rhetoric and political theater than actual substantive change.

To be sure, the Trump Administration rolled back two significant elements of Obama’s policy. First, Americans will no longer be allowed to travel on individualized people-to-people educational itineraries; they will be required to visit on more costly group tours. Second, transactions that “disproportionately benefit” the military, which manages much of the tourist sector, will be prohibited. It’s not surprising the administration settled on those policies to reverse: allowing Americans to develop their own travel itineraries and permitting transactions with military-run entities were initially controversial ideas in the Obama Administration.  

The impact of Trump’s policy revisions, moreover, is likely to be small. Most Americans travel to Cuba on trips that will not be affected by the new rules, and most Cuban hotels are not managed by the military. Further, airlines and cruise ships will continue to carry passengers to Cuba.

Bureaucratic considerations also may limit the impact of Trump’s policy changes. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control is understaffed, and its efforts are better spent administering sanctions on countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran than keeping Americans off Cuban beaches and policing which hotels they can stay in.

Thus far, the government of Cuba has reacted to Trump’s announcement with relative restraint, understanding that those in the United States who want to limit engagement represent a minority view, and confident of the significant momentum for greater ties. Cuba's direction in any case will be shaped more by its own transition —  Raul Castro will step down as president in February — than any measures the United States takes.

If economic and political reform advance under a new leader in Cuba, that would give added impetus to the process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Years from now, we might look back at Trump's announcement in Miami not as a step backward in relations between the two countries, but as the point when the divisive debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba finally began to recede.

April 7, 2017

President Donald Trump’s row with Mexico has not only set back relations with our southern neighbor, it is undermining the standing of the United States throughout the Americas. It occurs at a time when cooperation on issues like migration, organized crime and trade has been at an all time high, and the region has shifted away from the statist, anti-American positions marked by the Venezuelan government-inspired ALBA bloc. Such collaboration is suddenly in jeopardy, with troubling consequences for U.S. national security and economic prosperity.

Favorable opinion of the United States in the Americas had risen markedly in recent years. In Mexico, for example, fewer than half of Mexicans had a favorable opinion of the United States in 2008—the year President Barack Obama was elected. Seven years later, two-thirds did. President Obama’s calls for partnership with Latin American governments, the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, support for Colombia’s peace process, and increased assistance to Central America to address the violent crime and poverty that fuel illegal migration helped to build a reservoir of good will and collaboration over matters of national interest for the United States.

This constructive approach coincided with the recent emergence of new leaders in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru that solidified a growing regional desire for the rule of law and market economies and a closer alignment with the United States.

As a result, the Trump administration inherited a Western Hemisphere that, with a few exceptions, was ideologically aligned and accustomed to working with the U.S. on critical issues, such as trade, energy, migration, and drug trafficking.

That political will is already dissipating, however. After the continued dispute over payment for a U.S. border wall and threats to impose taxes on Mexican imports prompted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his visit to the White House, Latin American governments and their citizens are becoming increasingly wary of the new administration.

Friendly Latin American leaders, including the presidents of Colombia and Peru, are now lining up in solidarity with Mexico against the Trump administration. Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in an appearance with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, noted in reference to Mexico: “Right now one of us is facing serious difficulties that are not of its own making. We have to stand together on our ideals, on global trade which has done us so much good.”

Santos echoed the sentiment, urged the region (with one neighbor clearly in mind) to adhere to “principles that have been so good for the world,” including free trade, respect for treaties and multilateral solutions.

Trump’s disrespect for Mexico’s president and its people has also managed to give the discredited and increasingly isolated leader of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, an opportunity to look like a regional statesman. Shortly after the blowup, Maduro tried to take advantage of the tensions with Mexico to ingratiate himself with Peña Nieto and isolate the United States by declaring, “If you pick on Mexico, you’re picking on Venezuela.”

The return of an antiquated North-South divide in hemispheric relations comes at a particularly inopportune time. The U.S. needs regional support to manage serious challenges in the Americas, such as Maduro’s authoritarian misrule in Venezuela, transnational criminal activity and rising discontent over cooling economies.

In Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves but suffers from severe shortages of food and medicine, a flagging dialogue between the government and opposition will never succeed without greater international pressure. That requires U.S. leadership and capacity to mobilize Venezuela’s neighbors. Trump’s hostility toward migrants and bullying of the press, judges and his political opponents has already undercut America’s standing as a champion of democracy and human rights, but the quarrel with Mexico will make it even more difficult for U.S. diplomats to persuade countries to align with the U.S. to defend democratic norms—not just in Venezuela but elsewhere, such as Nicaragua.

The U.S. will also need cooperation from countries in the Americas to combat the criminal organizations engaging in a range of nefarious activities, from drug trafficking to illegal mining to human trafficking. Given lingering resentment over past U.S. interventions, receiving U.S. security support and assistance is a delicate political balancing act for many countries; it will become even more so if the U.S. again becomes a political pariah in the region.

It is not too late, however, for the Trump Administration to mend relations with Mexico and attempt to recover America’s standing in the region. The first step is for the White House to allow Mexico experts at the State Department and on the National Security Council (NSC) staff who have thus far been marginalized to take the lead in developing a government-wide approach that reflects the long-term interests of both countries.

And while there is a good argument for updating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the groundwork for such negotiations should be laid respectfully and quietly. Similarly, migration is a fitting topic for discussion with Mexico; such talks can begin by discussing how the United States can continue to support Mexico’s efforts to lawfully contain the flow of illegal migration of Central Americans transiting through Mexico on their way to the United States.

As the Trump Administration confronts global challenges such as the Islamic State, saber rattling North Korea, and Russian aggression, Americans can be comforted that our own hemisphere is largely stable, peaceful and friendly. The first step toward keeping it that way is to restore respectful relations with a country with which we share a 2000-mile border and whose security and economic prospects are deeply intertwined with our own.

March 1, 2017

The Treasury Department’s sanctions on the Venezuelan vice president for playing a major role in international drug trafficking was an overdue step to ratchet up pressure on the Venezuelan regime and signal that top officials will suffer consequences if they continue to engage in massive corruption, abuse human rights and dismantle democracy.  In and of itself, the sanctions will not bring about a democratic transition. That will require the Venezuelan opposition to remobilize its followers, and U.S. diplomatic efforts to marshal countries in the region to isolate the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela should rank among the Trump administration’s highest foreign policy priorities. The Maduro government, doubling down on the disastrous economic policies imposed by the late President Hugo Chavez, has produced a social cataclysm. The country with the world’s highest oil reserves suffers from hyperinflation, a nearly 20 percent economic contraction last year and shortages of food and medicine. The risks of a public uprising are high, threatening Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean with a refugee crisis. Worse still, Maduro has seasoned his economic misrule with political repression, holding scores of political prisoners and stripping the nation's legislative body of its authority.

In President Obama’s final year, the administration backed the opposition’s campaign to hold a presidential recall referendum, supported a Vatican-led dialogue between Maduro and the opposition, and mobilized regional governments to condemn the Venezuelan regime. The Treasury Department also built the case for sanctioning Vice President Tareck El Aissami, though the State Department withheld authorization for fear of disrupting the floundering Vatican mediation and imperiling the release of an American citizen imprisoned on manufactured charges in Caracas.
Maduro had hoped Donald Trump’s election would reduce U.S. pressure. Trump and his team have evinced little interest in human rights and democratic norms overseas, and the president is hardly a persuasive spokesman for press freedom or judicial independence.  But the sanctions on El Aissami, followed by Trump's Oval Office meeting with the wife of political prisoner Leopold Lopez, has put an end to any illusions about better relations.    

The blocking of El Aissami's properties and freezing of his assets in the United States could serve as a useful first move in pressuring the Venezuelan regime to reach a deal with the opposition. Thus far, the dialogue has only served to further entrench Maduro in power, even as his approval rating has plummeted to about 20 percent. He has used the talks as a delaying tactic to defuse domestic protest and hold the international community at bay. The government has faced few consequences for continuing to hold prominent political prisoners and cancelling a presidential recall referendum that polls showed Maduro was certain to lose in a landslide. 

To help the Venezuelan people end their national nightmare, the Trump administration should immediately follow its action against El Aissami with three additional steps.

First, it should insist that any political transition be peaceful and constitutional. American officials must heed the lessons of the short-lived coup in 2002, when Bush administration support for Chavez’s ouster did lasting damage to the U.S. standing in the region. Legitimate political outcomes include reviving the presidential recall referendum process or moving up next year's scheduled presidential elections to this year.

Second, the United States should defend the opposition’s right to peaceful protests by warning Venezuelan authorities that anyone who orders or participates in violence against demonstrators will be held accountable by the international community.

Finally, the administration should continue the Obama administration efforts to build support at the Organization of American States to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which offers tools to defend democracy, including Venezuela’s potential suspension from the body. Maduro craves international approval. In December, after Mercosur, a regional customs union, expelled Venezuela, his foreign minister suffered physical injuries when she sought to overpower security guards excluding her from a Mercosur summit.

Invoking the Charter will not be easy. Most countries have balked at discussing the document as long as the dialogue continues and enjoys the backing of the Vatican, and countries in the Americas remain disinclined to weigh in on the internal affairs of their neighbors. Venezuela has also silenced many of Caribbean countries with its provision of petroleum at discounted prices. The Trump administration, moreover, has demonstrated that diplomacy is not its forte, and its row with Mexico alienated governments in Latin America. Nevertheless, building a regional coalition is essential, or the sanctioning of a powerful official will end up a mere footnote in the story of Venezuela’s catastrophic collapse.