Trump’s Misguided Policies Are a Gift to Venezuela’s Maduro

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s Venezuela gambit has come up short. Three months after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as president and rolled out far-reaching energy sanctions, Nicolas Maduro remains entrenched atop his militarized regime.

Disappointed, the U.S. administration has begun lashing out. Yet its new moves will divide the dozens of countries that have joined an anti-Maduro coalition, making the South American nation’s return to democracy all the harder.

The Cuba crackdown is a case in point. The administration recently announced limits on the amount of money that U.S.-based families can send back to relatives, and restrictions on visits to the island by those without family ties there. And for the first time since the Helms-Burton Act was passed more than 20 years ago, an administration will not waive Title III, enabling U.S. citizens and companies to sue those using properties seized during the Cuban Revolution.

The administration has also gone after longtime ally Colombia. Trump has taken to bashing President Ivan Duque on Colombia’s failure to stem the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker has threatened that U.S. aid will be cut if Colombia’s Congress doesn’t amend aspects of the peace process to U.S. liking.

These aggressive gambits will make dislodging the Maduro regime more difficult, alienating influential players and easy friends alike. Cudgels without carrots against Cuba are unlikely to turn the island against its Venezuelan energy patron and revolutionary acolyte. Potential lawsuits against European and Canadian businesses are sure to upset these allies. And as the neighbor hardest hit by Venezuela’s misery, with more than 1 million Venezuelan refugees within its borders, Colombia is ill-equipped to respond to demands for stepped-up coca eradication.

Add to these moves recurring public musings by U.S. officials about military intervention. Brazil’s Congress and several of its generals have dismissed such a venture; Colombia’s political mainstream has expressed a similar reluctance. And the 14-country Lima Group organized to pressure Venezuela has explicitly condemned such a move, forcing the group into public disagreement with the U.S.

Floating an armed option also won’t rally people within Venezuela to the cause. The threats can’t help but stir strains of nationalism among even the most disgruntled military. And they sap the opposition’s willingness to take resolute and risky action: Why jeopardize one’s freedom and safety if the U.S. might remove the regime by force?

National Security Advisor John Bolton’s odd choice of venue, in front of Bay of Pigs veterans, to announce the punitive measures against Cuba just reminded the region that the U.S. has a history of leaving allied freedom fighters in the lurch. And while South Florida may think otherwise, Trump’s reelection campaign knows that come 2020, pictures of Midwestern Marines dying in Caracas are a prelude to political suicide.

Bellicose posturing undermines the laborious work needed to galvanize the international community and pressure the Maduro regime. Sanctions should be a starting point. So far, few have followed the U.S. lead, in part because most Latin American countries don’t have the legal frameworks to do so without the imprimatur of the United Nations. As a next step, the U.S. could help willing nations build up their laws to punish these wrongdoers.

The U.S. should also lead by example, showing that U.S. solidarity with Venezuelans doesn’t end when they leave their country. Sheltering the millions who have fled will cost billions this year alone; the U.S. should significantly step up financial support to ease the crisis. And it should do more to welcome to its own shores those fleeing the repressive regime: Stop deporting Venezuelans and accept more than just a handful of asylum seekers. More than that, the administration should grant temporary protected status to allow many more to come until political change occurs.

Past efforts for change in Venezuela foundered on divisions within the domestic opposition and the international community. Today’s consensus in and out of the country offers the best chance of bringing democracy back, but not if the U.S. breaks it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O'Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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