Troika of Tyranny Versus the Three Amigos

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A recent bit of high-visibility branding by National Security Adviser John Bolton created quite a reaction in Latin America. In a forceful speech delivered to South Florida anti-Castro true believers, he called Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela a “troika of tyranny.” Then he called them a “triangle of terror.” I’m neither a speechwriter nor a marketing guru, but I’m pretty sure sticking to one nickname would have done the job.

In any case, all three of these nations are tyrannies and all three dabble in terrorist activities. But the differences vastly outweigh the similarities, and we need a different approach to each as we work to improve a part of the world that matters deeply to the U.S. Most important: Instead of over-focusing on the troika of tyranny, our energies should go into working with our Three Amigos in South America: Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. 

Bolton’s statement, of course, is reminiscent of the “axis of evil,” a phrase coined by President George W. Bush at his 2002 State of the Union address to describe Iran, North Korea and Iraq. He pledged to end their dangerous behavior. Unfortunately, despite a great deal of effort by the U.S. and its allies, two members of the axis of evil seem to be motoring along on their path to destabilize the globe in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Much as with the troika of tyranny, the axis of evil charter members are very different in their culture, history and level of bad behavior. Broadly speaking, in dealing with them the U.S. took three different approaches. We invaded Iraq and changed the regime — at a staggering cost in blood and treasure. Washington harshly sanctioned Iran and finally pushed it to agree to a halt in its nuclear program, but watched it simply continue with supporting terrorists and improving its missile systems. And the U.S. first made threats against North Korea, then shifted its approach toward negotiations, although of late that is looking less hopeful as Kim Jong Un characteristically shifts positions at whim. 

Just as a single approach hasn’t worked for all three original axis members, we need very different strategies for Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

In the case of Nicaragua, there really isn’t much the U.S. needs to do. The rotten government of Daniel Ortega is falling apart as the people of this tiny, pastoral Central American nation mount larger and larger protests. After robbing his nation for a decade, the clock is ticking for Ortega. There is plenty of international opprobrium being heaped on him and his cronies, and the likelihood is that he will either be forced out of office or restructure the government’s approach in the months ahead. The best U.S. position is simply to let events take their course and be supportive generally of the opposition without becoming a lightning rod. The Organization of American States will continue to press for a nonviolent resolution, and Washington should support that effort strongly.

Venezuela is a vastly more complicated and dangerous case. With the help of Cuba, Nicolas Maduro continues to tighten his grip on the population. His military and intelligence agencies — backed by militias created by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez — managed to crack the will of the highly decentralized opposition during the last round of serious protests roughly a year ago.

Unfortunately, his critics now show little sign of coming together to present a united front, which is the sine qua non to booting Maduro. The U.S. must avoid becoming a rallying cry for the Maduro administration — there is nothing he would treasure more than a U.S. target to shoot at as he rallies his base. Rather, the Trump administration should increase sanctions on individuals, gather intelligence, work quietly with the OAS, prepare contingency plans for helping with refugees, and do what it can to push the opposition together without appearing to collude overtly. 

With more than 2 million refugees out of the country already and a full-blown economic crisis in progress, the outlook for Venezuela is poor. We need to be ready to help the region deal with an even more dramatic explosion either internally or a mass exodus. The U.S. needs to be militarily prepared for humanitarian and peacekeeping work, but clearly within the context of a mission authorized and sponsored by the OAS.

Cuba, of course, has been the epicenter of U.S. challenges in the region since the corrupt Castro regime took power six decades ago. The Obama administration’s approach in opening up Cuba to outside engagement is having a slow but effective trajectory. And despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Trump administration has not significantly shifted things: allowing more but still-controlled economic engagement, placing sanctions on corrupt officials and narcotics traffickers, increasing intelligence-gathering, using Guantanamo Bay not only as a detention center but as a base for humanitarian operations, and waiting for demographics and the opening of society to take effect. While this isn’t bringing about radical or sudden changes, the best bet in Cuba is steady pressure and continued injections of outside connectivity: an approach centered on economic and public diplomacy.

Which brings us to the three amigos. Recent elections in Colombia, Brazil and Argentina have brought to power right-of-center regimes with whom Washington can work far more prosperously than many of their predecessors. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Ivan Duque of Colombia and Mauricio Macri of Argentina aren’t carbon copies, but they have much in common politically — and collectively their GDP is the dominant economic force in South America. We have several smaller partners on the continent as well, particularly Chile.

The U.S. needs to lead a collective conversation with those countries and create a distinct strategy for dealing with each of the problem nations that John Bolton correctly identifies. Just as each threat requires a different prescription, each of our partner nations can bring various tools to bear, and in aggregate the three amigos alongside the U.S. are capable of a regional approach that can be codified through the OAS.

The U.S. does not want to come across in Latin America and the Caribbean as a regional policeman trying to clean up “our backyard.” There are old ghosts in that approach. We need to understand the nuances of each nation in the region, both friend and foe, if we are going to help bring democracy, prosperity and stability to all.

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

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

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