Last November, just days before the midterm elections, National Security Adviser John Bolton traveled to the anti-Castro stronghold of Miami to give his “troika of tyranny” speech—a retrograde, Cold War–style assault on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. “The troika will crumble,” Bolton predicted brashly. “We know their day of reckoning awaits. The United States now looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall: in Havana, in Caracas, in Managua.”
At the time, the speech was perceived as little more than posturing to turn out the right-wing vote in Florida. In retrospect, however, Bolton was signaling the administration’s determination to restore US hegemony in Latin America. Advancing Trump’s MAGA mantra, it is clear, now requires flexing interventionist muscle in Venezuela. The administration’s endgame, though, appears to be Cuba—the island nation that has challenged US hemispheric domination since the anti-imperialist triumph of the Castro-led revolution 60 years ago. Indeed, as Washington ratchets up its efforts to topple the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, we are witnessing what The Miami Herald has called “the Cubanization of Venezuela policy.”
The crisis in Venezuela has provided the “low-hanging fruit,” in the words of journalist Jon Lee Anderson, for the resurrection of a bygone era of gunboat diplomacy, when Washington could dictate the fate of regional governments. Maduro’s abuses of power have brought widespread misery to a once-prosperous nation that, under his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, seemed poised to supplant Washington’s economic and political influence in the region. The Venezuelan people have every reason—and every right—to demand an end to an incompetent government that has transformed their oil-rich nation into a failed state.
But from the start of his presidency, Trump has had regime change in Venezuela on his policy agenda—as a step toward fulfilling his campaign promise to “end the deal” that President Obama made with Raúl Castro for a historic peaceful coexistence with Cuba. On only his second day in the White House, Trump “asked for a Venezuela briefing,” one former administration official recently told The Wall Street Journal, “to explore how to reverse Obama-era policies toward Cuba.” Options for getting rid of Maduro and ending Venezuela’s alliance with Cuba included cutting off the billions of dollars that the United States pays for Venezuelan oil imports—a major sanction that the administration has now imposed.
In his Miami speech, Bolton announced additional sanctions against Cuba, promising that “even more would come as well.” Indeed, as part of what US officials portray as a broader and more aggressive approach to the region, details are being leaked to the media on forthcoming measures to roll back the Obama-era policy of positive engagement with Havana. First among them is redesignating Cuba as a sponsor of international terrorism. In 1982, amid the bloody US counterinsurgency campaigns in Central America, the Reagan administration placed Cuba on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”—a flagrant effort to portray Havana’s support for revolution as support for international terrorism. Despite the lack of any evidence that Cuba backed terrorism and the abundant evidence that it was, instead, a target of such activities, one administration after another kept Cuba on the list. Obama finally removed it as part of the negotiations to restore normal diplomatic ties in 2015.
In the coming weeks, the White House also plans to announce that Americans can sue in US courts to regain properties in Cuba expropriated after the Cuban Revolution—a punitive provision contained in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that every president since Clinton has waived to avoid the chaos of litigation against companies from allied nations with investments in Cuba.
Both of these policy changes will eventually deter much-needed foreign investment in Cuba; more immediately, however, putting Cuba back on the list of terrorist states will scare off US tourists. At the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which monitors and implements regulations on travel to Cuba, officials have strongly hinted that an announcement on travel restrictions is expected soon.
These sanctions and restrictions are designed to squeeze Cuba’s growing private sector, which caters to US travelers, and further destabilize the country’s already struggling economy. Of more immediate concern to Cubans, the regional community, and conscientious US citizens, however, is the administration’s threat of open intervention in Venezuela, and the potential spillover effect it would have on Cuba policy. At a press briefing on January 28, Bolton held a yellow pad with the words “5000 troops to Colombia” visible for journalists to see—and report. In a subsequent CBS interview, Trump called military action against Venezuela an “option” still under consideration.
Such threats could be a bluff. But behind a president who prides himself on being a bully is a team of committed regime-changers: Senator Marco Rubio, who is now acting as a shadow secretary of state for Latin America and for whom rolling back the Cuban Revolution is a top priority; Mauricio Claver-Carone, the leading hard-line Cuban-American lobbyist against Obama’s policy of engagement, who is now a special assistant to the president and senior director at the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Affairs division; Elliott Abrams, the former assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years who became infamous for enabling and covering up crimes against humanity in El Salvador and Guatemala, and who was convicted (but pardoned) for crimes relating to the Iran-contra scandal; and Bolton, who, as George W. Bush’s UN ambassador, spread the canard that Cuba’s medical-research programs were a cover for biological-weapons production. This formidable group has a Captain Ahab–like obsession with regime change in Cuba, according to former NSC staffer Benjamin Gedan. For Bolton et al., “Cuba is a foreign-policy white whale.”
“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba,” President Obama stated during his history-making speech at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana in March 2016. “I want you to know,” he reiterated, looking across the auditorium at then-President Raúl Castro, that “my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.”
Three short years later, those assurances are no longer valid.