Trump takes his Venezuelan itch to the UN

(President Maduro’s supporters mark 20th anniversary of rise to power of socialist predecessor Hugo Chavez, Caracas, Feb. 2, 2019)

The phone briefing by a “high-ranking” US official on Friday regarding the situation in Venezuela triggered speculation that the Trump administration is considering the use of military force against the Maduro government. The US official said that military intervention is “a very serious option” He saw it as “clearly one that is seriously considered as events unfold.” 

The intensifying rhetoric came just two days after Kiron Skinner, the State Department director of policy planning, said on Wednesday, “We’re thinking about the Russian presence very seriously and its ramping up and the growing complicated nature of Venezuela.” Other US officials have also acknowledged that Maduro has proven unexpectedly resilient, due in part to support from Cuba and Russia. 

However, the beauty about unattributable media briefings is that, well, they don’t mean much beyond raising hackles, without anyone losing face in particular. The remarks on Friday can be put in perspective. The point is, a certain propaganda build-up is necessary toward coming Wednesday when the US Vice-President Mike Pence is due to address the UN Security Council in New York regarding Venezuela.  

Meanwhile, Pence delivered a speech on Venezuela on Friday at the Rice University’s Baker Institute at Houston, Texas. The venue suggests that Pence was addressing the domestic audience. The Hispanic population in the US form about a fifth of all eligible American voters. 

Pence’s speech was highly rhetorical and he kept repeating that Trump is ‘unwavering’ in his commitment to support the Venezuelan opposition as it struggles to replace the Maduro government. Of course, Pence condemned President Nicolas Maduro as the epitome of all evils, including socialism. Pence listed out the sanctions and other measures that the Trump administration has employed to bring down Maduro. 

The speech was interesting for three main reasons. One, Pence didn’t mention a word about Russia. Two, he instead singled out Cuba as the arch-villain: 

“And the truth is, the only way he (Maduro) clings to power is with the help that he receives from communist Cuba… Cuba’s leaders are the real imperialists in the Western Hemisphere… For decades, Cuba has tried to create client states across this region.  While normal countries export goods, Cuba exports tyranny and strong-arm tactics.  Cuba’s influence has driven Venezuela’s failure, and the time has come to liberate Venezuela from Cuba.”

“That’s just one more reason why President Trump… reversed the failed policies of the last administration toward the dictatorship in Havana.  In the coming weeks, the United States will be taking even stronger action against Cuba.  In this administration, I promise you, it will always be Que Viva Cuba Libre.” 

Pence was addressing the politically influential Cuban emigrants in the US who passionately feel the US shouldn’t do anything that might legitimise the Cuban government. Herein lies the paradox that candidate Trump will have to contend with in the 2020 election. The Pew Research Center has found that less than half of all Cuban-American voters identified with the Republican Party. Equally, the Latino population in the US as a whole increasingly lean Democratic and are liberal on issues. ( A record 27.3 million of Latinos were eligible to vote in 2016.) 

At any rate, Pence was delightfully vague about US military intervention in Venezuela. He said, 

“President Trump has made clear: All options are on the table.  We will not stand idly by while the Venezuelan people suffer under dictatorship and oppression.  And Nicolás Maduro would do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America. Now, America will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela, and it remains our hope.”

“Next Wednesday, I’ll address the United Nations Security Council on the situation in Venezuela.  And the United States will continue to urge nations around the world to reject Maduro’s failed regime and stand with the Venezuelan people to bring an end to this humanitarian crisis once and for all.” 

In sum, Pence neatly sidestepped the military option. What emerges is that the Trump’s decision to depute Pence to address the UN SC on Wednesday is a clear signal that the US is reinventing the wheel — the need to involve the UN SC. By fortuitous coincidence, Libya’s sudden surge on the centre stage of world politics is a stark reminder of the perils of interventionism. In a statement on Friday regarding the situation in Libya, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored, 

“There is no military solution to the Libya conflict. This is why the United States continues to press Libyan leaders, together with our international partners, to return to political negotiations mediated by UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salame. A political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability, and prosperity for all Libyans.” 

Simply put, no matter the US’ keenness to bring Venezuela into its strategic orbit, Trump has understood that Maduro is not a pushover. Despite the barrage of US propaganda, the fact remains that Hugo Chavez’s legacy endures in Venezuela. Arguably, there is an entirely different reality in that country to what is being propagated in the US narrative. 

At the same time, it is important for Trump to be seen as following through on his promise on Venezuela. Republicans working for a second term for Trump and other GOP victories in 2020 are looking for a boost from Venezuelan-American voters. And Trump estimates that taking a stand against Maduro is a double whammy: it fights back the Democrats’ socialist policy pitches while on the other hand it could also generate some votes for the Republican Party. 

To be sure, Trump won’t want to carry a can of worms as he begins the campaign for re-election and will be mindful of the Pottery Barn rule — ‘You break it, you remake it.’ A recent paper by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies in Washington explains that there are three “illustrative scenarios” for Venezuelan oil production — “The first scenario (“Current Deadlock”) assumes that Maduro clings to power and sanctions continue in their current form… The next scenario (“Successful Transition”) assumes a quick and clean transition of power toward the end of this quarter… The final scenario (“Double Down”) is based on the assumption that all parties double down as Maduro struggles to retain control.” 

The CSIS paper adds, “However, even in the most optimistic of scenarios, Venezuela will struggle to recover to 1.3 million b/d by the end of 2020. Under that scenario, effectively addressing the dire security situation in the country will be crucial to create the conditions necessary… History provides useful examples of attempts to restore a country’s production profile in the wake of war, political strife, and years of underinvestment and neglect (Iraq, Libya, Iran, Azerbaijan, Mexico, etc.). All exhibit varying degrees of success. Restoring Venezuela’s production will likely involve a multi-stage process… Under almost any scenario, however, restoring production to 2016 levels and beyond will take years, not months.” 

Trump is inherently malleable. North Korea, Mexican wall, trade war with China, New Cold War with Russia — and now, Venezuela — what Trump says he’ll do isn’t necessarily indicative of what he will do. His decision to transfer the problem to the UN SC under the circumstances is eminently tactical. It didn’t come easy for Trump who detests the UN and has a deep aversion to multilateralism, but it seems to him the only realistic approach.under the circumstances.