Hemispheric Issues under the Radar as Global Tensions Rise
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(14 Oct. 2017) -– Rising tensions over the past several weeks between the United States and two foreign adversaries – North Korea and Iran have focused our attention globally while we pay scant attention to issues in the Western Hemisphere. Important developments in the hemisphere between the United States and the countries of Cuba and Venezuela should be watched carefully by the governments and people of the Caribbean and elsewhere in the region. The Trump Administration’s decisions to impose new U.S. sanctions on targets close to the Nicolás Maduro regime while suggesting a military option is on the table, and to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States are matters on which the countries in the region should be attentive.
In the case of Venezuela, deterioration in U.S.-Venezuela relations began long before Trump became president. However, diplomatic and other actions taken by President Barack Obama to pressure the Venezuelan government, including imposition of sanctions were pursued in a strategic and deliberative manner without suggesting possible military aggression against a relatively defenseless state. Obama’s sanctions against Venezuela were intended as coercive measures to encourage the Venezuelan government to negotiate with the political opposition in order to restore democracy and rule of law, and the protection of human rights in the country. Additional sanctions were always possible if there was lack of movement on the diplomatic front.
The Trump administration at the very outset used the problems in Venezuela as an opportunity to project U.S. dominance in the hemisphere. After all, Venezuela is a small country that could do very little, if any, military or economic harm to the United States. The Trump administration seemed to treat the problems in Venezuela more as an annoyance than a serious geopolitical threat. Thus the Trump administration’s approach through the Organization of American States (OAS) miscalculated U.S. influence over the countries of the region, and, rather than investing in a serious diplomatic initiative, the Trump administration showed very little tolerance for opposing views and approaches.
Before reaching this point, attempts by the Trump administration to engage diplomatically in Venezuela failed for a number of reasons, including what was viewed by some states in the region as a heavy handed approach and abuse of the Inter-American system by the United States. It could also be attributed to the lack of experienced diplomats and senior policy makers in the State Department with a clear understanding of regional issues and geopolitics, thus resulting in an amateurish approach in the exercise of diplomacy.
The result was total diplomatic failure and the blame game which ensued sought to divide rather than unify countries in the hemisphere. Some even questioned the right of small Caribbean countries to exercise their sovereignty, an issue that will be raised in the future as there will be further attempts to marginalize these small countries in future hemispheric policy and decision-making. In as much as the devastation of recent hurricanes in some of the Eastern Caribbean countries rightly demands our urgent attention there should be parallel engagement in the region on the future of the Caribbean in regional organizations, in particular the role of Caribbean states individually and collectively in the OAS. Caribbean governments should not wait for their roles to be defined by the United States and others in the hemisphere.
Whether one agrees with the exclusion of the OAS from having a role in bringing resolution to the situation in Venezuela, in the long term, excluding the OAS is not beneficial to small countries in the hemisphere which may at some future point need to resort to the Inter-American system for guarantee of their own protection from internal or external aggression. It is incumbent on countries in the region to spend some time mending fences that may have been breached in the process.
As far as the United States is concerned, in imposing new sanctions on Venezuela, Trump was quite explicit in suggesting the possibility of a military option. While some in the Trump administration sought to explain away reference to the military option, Trump’s bellicose rhetoric increased tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. Importantly, it introduced the military option as a central element of Trump’s hemispheric policy, if such a policy actually exists. Trump has repeatedly referenced the military option, almost as a first and only course of action when responding to North Korea and Iran, two countries with significant military capacities to do harm to the United States. Venezuela’s military capacity pales in comparison to North Korea and Iran and Trump’s threat signals a return to gunboat “diplomacy” in the hemisphere, and that’s a scary prospect.
President Barack Obama upon assuming office in 2009 began a process of rapprochement with Cuba and took the first step in September of that year towards easing the embargo against Cuba. The ensuing years saw gradual easing of sanctions leading to significant changes and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries announced December 17, 2014. While there was stiff opposition in some sectors of the U.S., the majority of the American people, including Cuban-Americans welcomed the changes. American citizens and businesses took advantage of the opening under the Obama administration to travel to Cuba and to establish lucrative business relationships. I doubt Trump will be able to reverse this trend as there are already mutually beneficial relationships established since Obama provided new opportunities for Cuban engagement.
In the meantime a segment of the Cuban-American community and their political supporters were promised by presidential candidate Trump that he would roll back President Obama’s diplomatic initiatives, and now we are seeing this played out by the Trump administration. However, the personal relationships, in particular of Cuban-American families with family members in Cuba cannot be reversed. Similarly, a number of Republican-governed states are taking advantage of the opening of Cuba to grow businesses in their respective states and will not support shutting the border with Cuba again.
The pretext for removal of the 15 U.S. diplomats from Cuba – the problem with U.S. diplomats and some private citizens suffering from certain forms of illnesses as a result of mysterious sounds to which they have been subjected remains a mystery. Separate investigations are being conducted by both the U.S. and Cuba. So far, the U.S. Government (USG) has been unable to determine responsibility for the “attacks” on the U.S. diplomats in Havana. The Cuban government has claimed the USG is unresponsive to its request for cooperation in the investigation. There is speculation the “attacks” may be the responsibility of rogue members of the Cuban government or by a third country such as Russia. Cuba has denied any complicity in the attack and is trying to get to the bottom of it. The USG believes the Cuban government had done very little to prevent the “attacks.” We don’t know for sure.
While it is not possible to determine the outcome of these issues, as we strive to navigate the chaotic diplomatic environment in the U.S. capital, governments of the region must search for lessons from the confusion. Individually, and collectively as CARICOM, the governments of the Caribbean cannot afford to wait and be surprised by future actions of the Trump administration in the hemisphere. I expect the principal instruments to be used against the region will be the Treasury and State Departments on issues not unexpected but issues that could affect the economies of individual countries and the region as a whole.
© 2017 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post