Elephants in the Room

Bolton Is Building a Confrontational Latin America Strategy

The Trump administration is right to call out the region’s rogues for their destabilizing behavior.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in the White House in Washington on Oct. 3.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in the White House in Washington on Oct. 3.

For the first time since entering office, U.S. President Donald Trump has managed to surround himself with a full complement of like-minded officials to develop and implement U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. In recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have welcomed Kimberly Breier as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and Mauricio Claver-Carone as senior director for the region at the National Security Council.

The recent appointments served as the backdrop for Bolton’s speech earlier this month at Miami Dade College, in which he began laying out the Trump administration’s priorities in Latin America for at least the next two years.

In large part, that will involve more aggressively confronting the region’s troublemakers—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—because, as he put it in an interview with the Miami Herald, the United States has “wider interests in the hemisphere that are threatened by all three of these three countries.” Indeed, “This Troika of Tyranny,” he said in his speech, “is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” That’s why the United States, he continued “is taking direct action against all three regimes.”

Bolton is not referring to military action (which he dismissed in his interview), but to more aggressive implementation of the policy tools at Washington’s disposal—including economic and political sanctions, legal indictments, and support for civil society and democracy groups, among other measures—to combat these outlier regimes.

The administration is right to call out the region’s rogues for their destabilizing behavior. The problems created by their utter disregard for democratic norms, rule of law, and the rights and welfare of their citizens, including organized crime and refugee flows, do not stay within those countries’ own borders. Rather, they spread elsewhere, including to the United States, whose security depends on its partners working in unison to keep the neighborhood peace. Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are weak links.

To address the situation in Venezuela, Bolton announced new sanctions that target the country’s gold sector and bar U.S. citizens and entities from involvement in it. He said, “The Maduro regime has used this sector as a bastion to finance illicit activities, to fill its coffers, and to support criminal groups.” With oil revenues in free fall, President Nicolás Maduro has desperately turned to mining Venezuela’s gold deposits and shipping the product to Turkey for refining to avoid pre-existing U.S. sanctions. (According to a senior U.S. Treasury Department official, Maduro has illegally exported more than 21 metric tons of gold to Turkey to date.)

Although Bolton did not announce new sanctions for Nicaragua in his Florida speech, he did say that unless President Daniel Ortega’s government holds “free, fair, and early elections,” it “will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.” At present, the U.S. has sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials on human rights and corruption charges and revoked an unknown number of visas. After months of violently suppressing street protests—resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people since April—the Ortega regime has stabilized and retrenched. A new slate of punitive sanctions targeting Ortega’s family, his inner circle, and the military, combined with efforts to embolden the private sector to pressure Ortega for early elections, could once again enhance chances for a resolution to that crisis.

On Cuba, Bolton said that in the coming days, the administration will add to its list of people and companies barred from any financial transactions with U.S. citizens more than two dozen additional entities controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence. “The Venezuelan regime’s repression is of course enabled by the Cuban dictatorship,” he said. “The United States calls on all nations in the region to face this obvious truth, and let the Cuban regime know that it will be held responsible for the continued oppression in Venezuela.” (The list itself was created by the administration a year ago in response to those services controlling almost all of the Cuban tourist sector profiting from liberalized U.S. travel under President Barack Obama.)

In increasing the pressure on Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, the Trump administration cannot and should not go it alone. Any effort will likely be futile if other countries are not part of the plan. A strong diplomatic component—rallying more regional countries to add to existing sanctions against corrupt officials and human rights abusers—should accompany this strategy.

But confronting rogues should not be seen as the sum total of U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. There is also an important relationship with Mexico (which has just elected its own outsider president) to be maintained, and the Trump administration will also have to decide how to engage with Brazil’s incoming far-right government led by Jair Bolsonaro, the implications of which for U.S. interests remain uncertain. The United States must also keep us its relationship with Colombia (which is struggling to manage the fallout from its recent peace agreement with the FARC), and then there is the brutal violence in Central America that is driving so many citizens there to flee north. All these will require high-level attention and a deft diplomatic touch amid so much unpredictability.

The positive news is that the Trump administration finally has a hemispheric team in place. The challenge remains to execute Bolton’s aggressive policy proposals successfully.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.