Tue | Sep 26, 2017

David Jessop | Trump’s remarks give Venezuela breathing space

Published:Sunday | August 20, 2017 | 8:06 AM
An anti-government protester covers his mouth during a 12-hour national sit-in, in Caracas, Venezuela, in this June 5, 2017 photo. (AP)

Speaking on August 11 at a press conference at one of his golf courses, American president, Donald Trump, scored the equivalent of a foreign policy own-goal.

"We have many options for Venezuela, and by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option," he said, before going on to elaborate on US military capabilities.

With a few ill-conceived words, he set back not only his administration's foreign policy, but also diverted hemispheric pressure on President Maduro's government following elections for a partisan constituent assembly able to amend the country's constitution and take other far-reaching political and economic decisions.

The effect was to undercut United States diplomacy which had been seeking a hemisphere-led response that was not attached to its name. This had as its objective isolating Venezuela in the Americas and encouraging condemnation or neutrality by much of the rest of the world.

Instead, President Trump's words achieved the opposite outcome. They reminded the hemisphere and others of past US invasions and interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Chile to Grenada. They also appeared to affirm Venezuela's view that Washington has been actively encouraging internal unrest and social disintegration in order to provide a basis for military action.

In Cartagena, during a visit by the US Vice-President Mike Pence, President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos refuted the US president's view. "A military intervention would be unacceptable to all countries in Latin America," he said, noting that what is wanted is the restoration of democracy.

In Santo Domingo, Domini-can Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas said: "Obviously [a military intervention] would be a contradiction if what is sought is to solve an internal political crisis in a country in the region where, in addition, there is a democratically elected government."

Peru, too, found its position undercut just days after it had co-ordinated a declaration by 12 large Latin nations and Canada that condemned and sought to diplomatically isolate Vene-zuela, with a view to achieving some form of mediated settlement.

As for the countries of Caricom, irrespective of what has been said in public, it is clear that they are irretrievably split over how to respond to the situation in Venezuela. They are divided along lines that mix the practical and the ideological, with wishful thinking, while trying to resist both US and Venezuelan pressure.

Although the formal position of Caricom Heads of Government is to recognise the importance of non-intervention and non-interference in Venezuela's internal affairs, and to offer the region's good offices to support mediation between its government and opposition, it is one that papers over deep inter-Caricom divisions.

It is scarcely a secret that Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad are in private vigorously expressing alternative views, as is Guyana which has additional concerns relating to Venezuela's territorial claim - while Grenada's voice is suppressed by its role as Caricom's present chair.

Equally, it is apparent that some members of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), most notably St Vincent and Dominica, take a line that actively defends within the hemisphere, and in all multilateral organisations, the position of President Maduro's government.

These differences recently threatened to break out into the open during a three-hour August 8 teleconference between Caricom leaders solely about Venezuela. This involved what Trinidad's Foreign Ministry subsequently described as 'robust' language a term used by diplomats to hide angry exchanges and fundamental disagreement.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic says it has purposefully not taken sides. President Medina's government believes that impartial arbitration will be necessary to resolve Venezuela's social and political crisis, a role it says it stands ready to undertake or participate in.

In contrast, Cuba remains wholly committed and supportive of President Maduro's administration. It has promised 'militant solidarity' and is locked into a symbiotic relationship with much of Venezuela's leadership and military.

Despite this, there has been some nuanced individual commentary in Cuba's media which could in part be interpreted as suggesting the need for a debate around the emergence of some form of Venezuelan opposition that offers critical support, and eventual consideration being given to the election of those better able to lead and manage.

What President Trump's ill-considered remarks appear to have done is to give President Maduro's administration the time and political space internationally for it to take decisions relating to local, regional and presidential elections, address threatening economic issues, and to consider the future ideological construct of the country's constitution. In the coming weeks, it is likely that as in the case of the country's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, it will now move against credible others, who its sees as having publicly stood up to it. It may also move to try to stabilise internal security.

However, the underlying problems remain.

Venezuela's government needs to manage the economic disaster and accompanying humanitarian crisis that was created when it failed to respond rapidly or practically to the effects of falling oil prices.

To do so, rational plans are required that, over time, maximise the country's opportunity to take advantage of the vast reserves of oil and gas that it has. It also needs to be clear as to whether it sees a future role for pluralism and an elected opposition, and how it intends achieving a form of leadership better able to demonstrate management. There is also a pressing need to resolve personal, ideological and other differences that exist at high levels.

This will take time. It suggests that Venezuela's willingness to consider any externally mediated dialogue may be some way off.

Largely ignored in all of this have been the broader effects the crisis in Venezuela is having on the region and the countries of Caricom. Although the actors are different, the divisions it is creating and its long-term implications are not dissimilar to those that occurred at the time of the Grenada revolution in 1979, or the subsequent US invasion/intervention in 1983.

It is having the effect of identifying and exacerbating unresolved inter-regional issues, aggravating the fault lines in ways that may change relationships in the coming years.

- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council. david.jessop@caribbean-council.org.