Last Wednesday, Juan Guaidó, the President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, took an informal oath of office and declared himself the country’s interim President. In a choreographed response, the United States and a number of other hemispheric countries including Canada, Brazil and Argentina recognised him as such.
The response of other nations was significantly more nuanced, calling instead for a political process that leads to free and credible elections. Russia, China and Turkey however, indicated their support for the Maduro government and objected to external interference in the country’s internal affairs.
In contrast, Caribbean nations, including some of those in the Lima Group who voted recently at the OAS not to recognise Nicolas Maduro’s second term in office, said nothing about Mr Guaidó . Instead they have called for a rapid regional and international dialogue involving all actors, to preserve the democratic process.
What happens next is far from certain. Washington’s unprecedented decision to recognise an alternative government to the one that holds de facto power has set in train a hard-to-predict range of outcomes, which may turn a humanitarian disaster into geopolitical conflict.
Venezuela’s military leadership has declared that it supports the existing regime, and regards Mr Guaidó proclamation as a “reprehensible event”, suggesting that a military-led change of government or new elections are unlikely.
Events will therefore demonstrate whether President Trump, his hawkish advisers, or those nations that have recognised Mr Guaidó really have a well thought out long-term strategy, and a clear-cut exit plan for what they have put in motion.
The sudden change in tactics towards Venezuela is the first manifestation of a much less benign policy towards any nation in the hemisphere that Washington regards as not conforming to Western democratic norms.
Recent comments by senior US figures including the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the US National Security Adviser John Bolton, and the influence exerted over policy towards the hemisphere by individuals such as the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, set this in context.
In an indication of what might happen next in Venezuela, Senator Rubio, who is widely regarded as the architect or the Trump Administration’s ideologically-driven approach to Latin America and the Caribbean, has warned of “swift and decisive” consequences should any harm befall American diplomats in Venezuela.
Although, understandably, no one has commented publicly on what might happen should Mr Guaidó be harmed in any way, those with long memories will remember the circumstances in Grenada that led, in 1983, to a request by Caribbean neighbours for the US to intervene militarily: a precedent that suggests that all parties in Venezuela should proceed with caution.
In a more general indication of what may come next in relation to those Washington sees as its ideological enemies, Secretary Pompeo informed Congress that the Trump administration would “conduct a careful review” of the US’s right to act under Title III of the Helms Burton Act.
This provision would allow the former owners of American companies that were seized during the Cuban Revolution to bring lawsuits against foreign companies and the Cuban government itself. It has been routinely waived by every US president for six-month periods — and President Trump will now only waive the provision for 45 days.
The language contained in the US Secretary of State’s message was particularly striking. He said that the action was being taken “in light of the national interests of the United States, and efforts to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba”. His justification went further to include the Cuban regime’s “brutal oppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and its indefensible support for increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua”.
Then, in an indication that Washington expects other nations and their companies to use the 45 days between February 1 and March 17 to reconsider their engagement with Cuba, Mr Pompeo said:
“We ask the international community to intensify efforts to hold the Cuban Government accountable for the 60 years of repression of its people. We encourage anyone doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and inciting that dictatorship”
– US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo
In a strongly worded response, the Cuban government alluded to the wider implications of the decision. Responding via tweet, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel described the US decision as having the “objective of subverting and overthrowing the government, and imposing a regime to the liking of the US government”.
At the very least, if President Trump breaks with precedent and ceases to waive Title III, it is likely to prove divisive because the legislation is extraterritorial in its effect. Not only does it enable US holders of expropriated assets to seek redress in US courts against foreign companies and persons; it also allows for civil and criminal sanctions.
Such a decision by President Trump is also likely to bring the US into conflict with its allies. For example, during the Obama Administration, the EU and many nations elsewhere welcomed US efforts to normalise relations with Cuba, and encouraged investment and trade between the two countries.
It is now widely expected that other ideologically driven US-sanctions on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba will follow, and this will require nations from Jamaica to St Vincent to take more than a partisan view.
None of this should be taken as seeking to minimise the suffering of the Venezuelan people, or to excuse the incompetence of the Maduro government, or to exonerate those nations that continue to argue despite that hunger, chaos and the millions who have departed, that Venezuela is creating a socially-just society.
Rather, it is to indicate that if the Caribbean is not to become irreconcilably-divided, it needs to arrive at a common, genuinely non-aligned position which accepts that ideologically-led foreign policy within the hemisphere will have unpredictable consequences.
Editor’s note: The original text of this article has been edited for clarity on the legal provisions of Title III 0f the Helms Burton Act.
Image: Nicolas Maduro, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Fábio Cavalcanti Ferreira)