- By David McKeanDavid McKean was director of policy planning at the State Department for Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013 to 2016 and served most recently as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg., Michael J. CamilleriMichael J. Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. From 2012 to 2017 he served in the Obama administration as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council.
Woody Allen famously said “showing up is 80 percent of life.” The same might be said for diplomacy, but last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to skip the annual meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Cancun, Mexico, dispatching his deputy instead.
At the meeting, the United States and like-minded nations failed in an attempt to call out Venezuela’s accelerating descent into chaos and autocracy. The resolution fell short by three votes, blocked by Venezuela’s ideological allies in South American and by small nations in the Caribbean and Central America, many of them longtime beneficiaries of Venezuelan oil largesse. As a former oil executive who had previously done business in Venezuela, Tillerson presumably understands how President Nicolás Maduro has used his country’s resources as economic leverage over his neighbors.
Diplomatic success in Cancun would not have halted the bloodshed in Caracas, but failure has emboldened Maduro. Just 24 hours after the OAS meeting, Venezuela’s ever-pliant Supreme Court initiated a process to remove the attorney general, a Maduro loyalist turned critic, from office. Two days later, Maduro’s troops shot dead a 22-year-old protester at point blank range, the latest of some 75 killed during months of demonstrations against despotism, corruption, and a crumbling economy.
Venezuela is now in jeopardy of descending into further violence and unrest, with Maduro talking loosely of defending the revolution with bullets rather than ballots. Restoring the democratic process enshrined in the country’s constitution is the best roadmap to peace, and may be the only way to avert a catastrophe.
The Trump administration’s desire for meaningful action and its frustration with the OAS outcome are understandable, but it risks learning the wrong lessons from Cancun. Press reports indicate the White House is considering a pivot toward unilateral action against Venezuela, including potential sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
Such a step is likely to backfire. In the past, Venezuela has used U.S. sanctions to paint itself the victim and unite Latin America against the specter of U.S. interventionism, real or imagined. The effectiveness of that particular Venezuelan tactic has faded, and further U.S. actions against individual kleptocrats, drug kingpins, and human rights abusers may be merited. But sanctions on the oil sector — which accounts for 96 percent of Venezuelan exports — could have serious short-term humanitarian consequences in a country already suffering widespread food and medicine shortages, sparking a backlash from Latin American governments and vindicating Maduro’s absurd claims of an “economic war” by the United States.
A better approach would combine more aggressive multilateral diplomacy with targeted use of unilateral carrots and sticks.
First, the United States cannot turn its back on the OAS, which would let Maduro off the hook and undercut the courageous efforts of Secretary General Luis Almagro to galvanize a passive hemisphere into action on behalf of the Venezuelan people. If domestic and international pressure can succeed in compelling Maduro to negotiate, a “contact group” of countries authorized by the OAS to accompany the talks could help chart a path out of the crisis.
Second, to make the OAS effective, Washington must apply its unique diplomatic leverage as a counterweight to Venezuelan bullying in the Caribbean. Tillerson, badly in need of a win, should convene Caribbean Community leaders to showcase the State Department’s recently released Caribbean Strategy, while leveraging U.S. assistance for cooperation on Venezuela. He should also enlist the foreign ministers of France and the United Kingdom to engage countries where they have historic relationships and influence.
Third, the administration — or in its absence, Congress — should recommit to the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative launched by former Vice President Joe Biden. The United States should not seek to compete with Venezuelan petro-diplomacy, but Caribbean nations need to know that Washington is invested in their success — even as the Trump administration slashes foreign aid budgets. And if, as some observers have suggested, individual foreign officials’ loyalty to Venezuela is driven in certain cases by graft, Washington should consider probing their U.S.-held assets or canceling their visas where there is solid evidence to do so.
Fourth, Ambassador Nicky Haley should continue her laudable efforts to shine a light on Venezuela at the United Nations. Following Brazil’s recent decision to suspend sales of tear gas to Venezuela, Haley should work with other Security Council members to propose an arms embargo on Venezuela. Russia and China, merchants of Venezuelan weapons, might well veto it, but only after a debate that spotlights the way such weapons are employed. The United States should also support, politically and financially, U.N. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans.
Finally, the United States must make clear that any transition in Venezuela should be peaceful, democratic, and determined by the Venezuelan people. Any ambiguity about U.S. military action or support for extra-constitutional solutions will be exploited by Maduro to fracture the international community and justify his efforts to consolidate power.
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