John Bolton just gave an “Axis of Evil” speech about Latin America
National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech changing America’s stance toward three Latin American countries — Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — on November 1, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images
National Security Adviser John Bolton just gave a modern-day “Axis of Evil” speech, this one focused on three countries in Latin America.
In a 30-minute address at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower, Bolton said the Trump administration will take a hard line against Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua by sanctioning the countries and cutting off diplomatic relations with them until they meet US demands.
“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, 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,” Bolton said. “Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.”
Bolton’s speech seems intended to usher in a new era of US relations with Latin America. It portends a massive escalation in US foreign policy: one where America is trying to dictate how three sovereign countries should operate.
The Obama administration famously said that it wouldn’t interfere much in the Western Hemisphere’s affairs. The Trump administration, however, just announced it will do the opposite.
“This is not a time to back away. It’s a time to increase the pressure, not reduce it,” Boltontold the audience after the speech.
The Trump administration’s new policies for Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua
The Trump administration will minimize diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Some reports indicate that Cuba — or at least some other country with Cuba’s permission — has attacked US personnel in Havana for the past two years.
In response, the US will remove some of its diplomats from the embassy in Cuba. But that’s not all: Washington will also cut off any secret backchannels between the two countries.
The US also won’t allow US cash to reach Cuba’s military, security, or intelligence services. Instead, it plans to impose financial penalties on Cuba until it frees political prisoners, allows for freedom of speech, embraces all political parties, and ensures fair elections.
Bolton said Caracas must release all of the country’s roughly 340 political prisoners. What’s more, it should allow for humanitarian aid to reach those in need, allow for free elections, and champion the rule of law and democratic institutions.
President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order to place new sanctions on Venezuela, Bolton said, which “will target networks operating within corrupt Venezuelan economic sectors and deny them access to stolen wealth.”
One of the biggest moves is to stop people around the world from engaging with Venezuelans involved with its gold sector, which Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me is a lucrative illicit market for the country.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, has been criticized for undermining democracy in his country since he assumed power in 2013.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Cuban President Raul Castro at a memorial service for former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on December 3, 2016. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Maduro ramped up the imprisonment of political opponents. He has cracked down on growing street protests with lethal force.
He has repeatedly postponed regional government elections in order to stave off threats to his party’s power.
And last year, he held a rigged election for a special legislative body that supplanted the country’s parliament — the one branch of government that was controlled by his political opposition.
Trump has heavily criticized Maduro in the past, and at one point openly considered a military invasion to overthrow him. It’s no surprise, then, that Venezuela featured so heavily in Bolton’s address.
Bolton also criticized Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega for his “regime’s violence and repression against its citizens and opposition members.”
The US doesn’t want Ortega’s government to detain protesters or target civilians anymore, though that’s unly to change anytime soon, as more than 300 people died during protests against the government this year.
Bolton said that the Trump administrationwants fair and democratic elections soon, or “the Nicaraguan regime, Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”
Put together, it’s a marked change for how the US deals with these countries specifically and the region writ large.
“Bolton’s speech today signaled a ratcheting up of pressure on Venezuela and Cuba, but also a new level of administration focus on the crisis in Nicaragua,” Marczak said. “What will be critical is using this moment to strike up new ways in which the US can work jointly with regional and global governments to put even further pressure on Maduro and his cronies.”
Bolton’s speech is troubling
Though Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua do indeed have repressive governments, there are still major problems with the speech.
The first is that it sounds a renewal of America’s Cold War stance toward Latin America. The US spent decades opposing, and in some cases fighting, communist forces. From Nicaragua to Guatemala to Chile, the US used its power to squash many left-leaning movements in the region mostly because of its opposition to the Soviet Union.
Sandinista fighters man barricades during fighting in the streets of Leon during the civil war. The war, fought between the Sandinista government and US-backed Counter-revolutionaries (Contras), lasted from 1981 to 1989. Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images
While Bolton didn’t offer Cold War- policies, the speech definitely echoed many of that era’s sentiments.
Second, Bolton just aligned the US with a repressive politician. He called Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right firebrand who won Brazil’s election on Sunday, a “minded leader.”
That’s scary. Bolsonaro has expressed fondness for his country’s past military dictatorship and wants to bring back torture to his country as a way to stem rising crime rates.
He may not be a dictator, but he could usher in an era of massive repression and imperil human rights in Latin America’s most populous country.
To align the US with Bolsonaro implies the goal really isn’t about improving “freedom,” but about eradicating far-left leadership in Latin America.
Some experts don’t find Bolton’s overture that odd, though.
“It is not surprising that Bolton and the US government would see the president-elect of Brazil as an ally,” Jana Nelson, a Brazil desk officer at the State Department from 2010 to 2015, told me.
“Jair Bolsonaro is an open admirer of Trump. He believes a closer relationship with the United States will be beneficial to Brazil and so do his followers,” she continued, and “it may the first time in over a decade that Brazil will be a reliable ally in the region.”
And finally, Bolton made statements that don’t correlate much with the Trump administration’s policies.
Take this passage aimed directly at members in the audience:
You breathe the free air of this beautiful city. Your children have experienced the possibilities of liberty. And your grandchildren will never know the firsthand heartache of repression. Your descendants can be anything, and achieve anything. …
And as they grow and flourish in America, they will carry with them your history, your sacrifice, and the memories of your incredible triumph. Their success will be your enduring legacy.
It’s a moving, uplifting message about how people around the world can escape tyranny and thrive in the United States. The problem is the Trump administration wants to deny that opportunity to thousands of people.
About three hours after Bolton’s Thursday address, Trump will give a speech about how he plans to restrict those seeking asylum in the United States. That continues the president’s extremely hard line against immigrants coming to America, which has hit time and time again ahead of midterm elections next week.
He’s even massively curtailed the number of refugees who can come to the US. From October 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, the US admitted only 10,500 refugees. That’s down roughly 74 percent from the same period the year before during the Obama administration. Estimates show the US may only accept around 21,000 refugees in 2018, which would be the lowest total since 1980.
The Trump administration may praise those who sought a better life in the US, then, but it has done little to help those seeking the same fortune.
“,”author”:”Alex Ward”,”date_published”:”2018-11-01T19:10:01.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/jYpWs_2DAwqwKktYZEXdHPTMmZs=/0x126:3000×1697/fit-in/1200×630/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/13371335/1045106914.jpg.jpg”,”dek”:”The US will now go after a so-called âTroika of Tyrannyâ: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
Sanctions Can’t Spark Regime Change
In the last several decades, financial and economic sanctions have become a key tool of U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration has made particularly heavy use of this tool, especially in its efforts to induce regime change in Venezuela and Iran.
On March 21, for instance, National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted that unless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro relinquishes power, “he and his cronies will be strangled financially.
” The next day, the White House announced sanctions against one major Venezuelan bank and four of its subsidiaries, stating that the United States “will continue to take steps to pressure Maduro, his regime, and those who support him, until they step the way and allow a democratic transition to occur.”
And although the administration has been more oblique in its call for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical regime, the demands it has issued to Tehran are so onerous that, as former U.S.
Ambassador Robert Blackwill has argued, they are “effectively impossible for Iran to accommodate without fundamentally changing its leadership and system of government.” U.S. President Donald Trump, in other words, “is requiring regime change in Iran without calling it that.
” On April 22, the United States took the latest step in this direction by announcing that it would refuse to issue waivers allowing other countries to purchase Iranian oil—an effort to drive “Iran’s oil exports to zero,” according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
The Venezuelan and Iranian people surely deserve better governments, and such a change would serve U.S. interests. But the Trump administration’s use of sanctions in this pursuit will probably fail. Moreover, it will ly weaken the force of sanctions as a U.S. foreign policy tool.
HOW SANCTIONS WORK
Used properly, sanctions can help persuade a target to change its behavior. But for sanctions to work in this manner, they must be aimed at behavior that the target can, however reluctantly, change. The targeted party must also believe that sanctions will be lifted if it abandons the behavior in question.
Sanctions designed along these lines have worked time and time again. They have been effective in persuading financial institutions around the world to cease doing business with those financing terrorism or engaging in nuclear proliferation—a major focus of the targeted sanctions under the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. U.S.
sanctions also weakened the grip of the military in Myanmar, inducing it to finally hold elections in 2015. Perhaps most notable, U.S.
sanctions on Iran under the Obama administration—backed by Washington’s international partners—helped persuade the Iranian government to agree to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, according to which it would cease developing nuclear weapons.
In each of these cases, those threatened with or subjected to sanctions clearly understood what they needed to do in order to avoid or end the pressure.
In each case, the sanctioned parties were willing and able to make the necessary changes, even if doing so was financially or politically painful.
Finally, in all of these cases the United States removed (or chose not to implement) sanctions when the target adjusted its behavior.
AN IMPOSSIBLE GOAL
The logic of coercive sanctions does not hold, however, when the objective of sanctions is regime change. Put simply, because the cost of relinquishing power will always exceed the benefit of sanctions relief, a targeted state cannot conceivably accede to a demand for regime change.
The calculus is particularly clear for revolutionary regimes, such as those in Iran and Venezuela, whose claim to domestic legitimacy relies in part on their public defiance of the United States. No matter how intense, U.S.
sanctions pressure will never convince autocrats such as Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Venezuela’s Maduro that they or their countries would be better off if they abandoned their revolutions in exchange for sanctions relief.
Indeed, this is one key lesson of Washington’s half century of futile efforts to oust the communist regime in Cuba.
The logic of coercive sanctions does not hold when the objective of sanctions is regime change.
One of this essay’s authors, David Cohen, worked in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration.
As the sanctions pressure on Iran intensified in 2013 and 2014, some, especially in Congress and think tanks, argued that instead of offering sanctions relief in exchange for policy concessions, Washington and its international partners should dial up the pressure until the Iranian regime collapsed.
But not only were there no indications that the regime was anywhere close to collapsing, there were no historical precedents for governments falling as a direct result of long-term sanctions pressure.
There is little reason to expect a different outcome today in Venezuela or Iran. U.S. unilateral sanctions are taking a severe toll, but this economic impact should not be confused with policy success, especially when regime change is the objective.
Despite their declining economies, both Venezuela and Iran continue to prioritize investment in their internal security services, which are practiced in crushing dissent. Venezuela may be closer to a change in government than Iran, owing in part to the Trump administration’s effective efforts to rally international support for the opposition.
Even so, the Maduro regime—with a loyal military, a ruthless internal security apparatus, Cuban advisers, and critical financial support from Russia—shows no signs of stepping aside willingly.
Even if sanctions are unly to spark regime change in Venezuela and Iran, one might ask: “What’s the harm in trying?” Although there are benefits to noncoercive sanctions—for example, depriving the targeted regime of resources for malign activities—the downsides are significant.
By their nature, sanctions impose costs on innocent third parties, and the more complex the sanctions, the greater the cost and the more ly they are to result in unintended harm. U.S.
sanctions on Venezuela and Iran are extraordinarily complex: primary sanctions prohibit parties within the United States from engaging in a range of business and financial activities with entities in both countries.
Secondary sanctions, meanwhile, prevent American individuals, banks, and other businesses from transacting with foreign entities that do business with Iran. Such sanctions impose significant compliance costs and legal risks on both U.S. and foreign businesses.
They can also unintentionally roil markets, as demonstrated by the recent episode with U.S. sanctions on the Russian aluminum giant Rusal—the Trump administration was forced to issue a series of sanction waivers to prevent the global aluminum market from collapsing before finally agreeing to lift sanctions on the company.
Nor is it possible to devise sanctions so precise as to avoid collateral harm to the target country’s population. Sanctions designed to fundamentally alter a government’s policies usually take aim at the core of the target country’s economy.
And although U.S.
sanctions always exempt trade in food, medicine, and medical devices, the sanctions against Venezuela and Iran have plainly exacerbated both countries’ crises, causing economic activity to recede and inflation and unemployment to spike.
These collateral harms are justifiable when sanctions are deployed in pursuit of a proportionate and plausibly achievable policy goal, such as creating leverage for nuclear negotiations with Iran or persuading Russia to respect the Minsk process.
But when broad-based economic sanctions are imposed in the quixotic pursuit of an impossible goal such as regime change, they are, in effect, purely punitive.
The Venezuelan and Iranian regimes may well deserve to be punished for their deplorable conduct; their people do not.
Finally, when the United States imposes punitive sanctions, it not only weakens the sanctions regime but breeds resentment and alienates would-be international partners. The power of U.S.
sanctions depends largely on the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency and preferred means of exchange for international commerce, which gives the U.S. financial system an outsize role in business transactions around the world.
But the dollar’s global dominance is relatively recent and by no means permanent or preordained.
In response to what they perceive as U.S. overreach—particularly on secondary sanctions that target entities from third-party countries—other actors, including China and the European Union, are actively looking for ways to limit their exposure to the dollar and the U.S. financial system.
The more the United States uses sanctions to pursue policies that lack international support, the more other countries, including U.S. allies, will seek alternatives to the dollar and the U.S. financial system. If they find such alternatives, it will be a blow not only to U.S.
sanctions policy but to the United States’ position in the global financial system.
Ultimately, the use of powerful sanctions in the misguided attempt to provoke regime change in Venezuela and Iran is not only ly to fail in its own right—in the long run, it works against U.S. foreign policy interests and threatens the American economy.