Tillerson’s Diplomatic Approach in Venezuela is Paying Off
Applying the North Korea playbook to Venezuela would offer a lifeline to the autocrat.
Venezuelan democracy was pronounced dead on March 29, when the country’s Supreme Court arbitrarily seized the functions of the National Assembly, setting the government of President Nicolas Maduro on a dangerous collision course with the Venezuelan people. This sad tale of a death foretold began over three years ago, when Maduro assumed the presidency in November 2013 by the slimmest of margins and chose to govern through repression instead of seeking common ground with pragmatic elements of the opposition ready to collaborate in addressing Venezuela’s growing security and economic problems.
In the course of a few years, the Venezuelan government eliminated the freedom of the press and assembly necessary for a legitimate political debate. It demonized and arrested political opponents, including political leader Leopoldo López, who was arrested during a peaceful protest and sentenced without proof in 2015 to nearly 14 years of prison for the laughable crime of inciting violence through “subliminal messages.” Today, the country’s currency reserves are all but gone, grocery store shelves are bare, medicine is scant, violence is rampant, and the government is confronting protestors with deadly force and arming pro-government vigilante groups. Maduro’s actions have lost him any remaining semblance of legitimacy, taking him to another crossroad: continue entrenchment as the country flies off the precipice or call for elections to rescue Venezuelan sovereignty.
The U.S. response to date is to be applauded. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approach of building upon the diplomatic efforts begun at the end of the Bush administration and largely continued by President Barack Obama have removed the United States as a foil to distract attention away from the country’s democratic breakdown. Tillerson stood up for universal human rights at a press availability on Wednesday, underscoring grave concern that “the government of Maduro is violating [its] own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people.”
Further, President Donald Trump’s February meeting with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, highlighted the plight of Venezuelan political prisoners. And Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) designation of Vice President Tarek El Aissami as a drug kingpin (the highest-ranking official ever to make the list) sent ripple through the Venezuelan kleptocracy. Such statements and actions by the President of the United States, the U.S. secretary of state, and OFAC send an important message and are helping to galvanize a regional response.
It is important to recognize such efforts as the culmination of years of work, across Republican and Democratic administrations, by the professional career men and women of State, Treasury, Justice, and the rest of the so-called “deep state” so maligned by this administration.
There was a progression, of course. Obama opted largely for policy continuity on Venezuela when he assumed office in 2009, with some important distinctions. One was a conscious effort to reduce the decibel level of public sparring with the Venezuelan government in order to cede the space necessary for the Venezuelan people to engage in an active debate about the future of their country. I recall one meeting where a well-respected U.S. diplomat summarized our approach with a famous quote from Bernard Shaw often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
As Venezuela’s economic situation sharply deteriorated due to mismanagement, Vice President Joe Biden spent two years working to marshal an international response to counter — and prepare for the end of — Venezuelan petropolitics through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. When the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 passed, the White House strengthened its implementation by adding corruption prongs intended to aggressively target corruption and the growing Venezuelan narcostate. Biden also walked up to Maduro during the 2015 Brazilian presidential inauguration in front of a giant camera spray in a last-ditch effort to secure the release of political prisoners and convince him to engage in real dialogue with the opposition (that’s my shiny bald head in the picture trying to block the cameras) and met with Tintori upon his return from Brazil.
The Obama administration also diverged from its predecessor through a concerted effort to carve out areas of common interest with the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) — Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and others. The intent was to make inroads were possible, particularly if the United States had a unilateral interest, but more importantly to eliminate the misperception that Washington fostered hemispheric polarization, and to create a space for the “adults” in the region like Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru to lead a regional solution. Coupled with the 2014 Cuba policy changes, this approach successfully undermined the coherence of ALBA.
However, the Obama administration’s decision to continue the Bush-era focus on the Organization of American States (OAS) as the premier multilateral forum for the region to defend democratic institutions was perhaps the most important. The Inter-American Democratic Charter created a hemispheric consensus in favor of democracy and established a mechanism for its collective defense.
Adopted on Sept. 11, 2001 during a special session of the OAS General Assembly, then Secretary of State Colin Powell and then Deputy Permanent Representative Thomas A. Shannon implored OAS member states support the charter in solidarity with the United States, just after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Now, following several failed efforts by the Union of South American States to broker a negotiated solution between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the Mexican government are leading a successful hemispheric effort to pressure the Venezuelan government to re-legitimize through free and fair elections.
As we near the likely end game in Venezuela — and there is no guarantee that Maduro will (or even has the power to) do what is right for the country by holding elections — continued entrenchment and repression by the government will have lasting repercussions for all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The U.S. approach to Venezuela thus far represents a rare instance in this administration’s foreign policy where diplomacy — the notion of working with others and leveraging multilateral institutions — is prevailing over strongman-ism. It is the proper course; diplomats are scoring important wins for U.S. leadership and regional cooperation. And the press is shouting the Trump administration’s accolades. Don’t undermine it by trying to wrestle the pig.
Photo credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images