Several analysts have previously pointed out that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, is unlikely to have positive relations with Venezuela given Exxon’s recent history there. Tim Gill’s article
outlining the 2007 seizure of Exxon’s assets in Venezuela and the subsequent dispute over fields in Guyana is excellent. That is, it is excellent until the final paragraph, which reads:
Given Tillerson’s background at ExxonMobil, we can expect the Trump administration to take an aggressive stance toward Venezuela. This may include sanctions on more Venezuelan state officials and even an end to high-level diplomatic meetings. Expect more friction over the next few years.
Really, that’s your vision of an aggressive stance? More sanctions and fewer high level meetings is the worst you’ve got?
I don’t mean to criticize Gill specifically, but his article is reflecting what I see as a wider lack of imagination among analysts over what options the incoming administration in the US could take in Latin America and elsewhere in the world.
It’s to the credit of the Obama administration that they have been cautious, perhaps overly cautious, preferring inaction to doing something that could cause more harm than good. But the judicious restraint of US power in the hemisphere, something that Obama promised in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 and has followed through upon during his administration, is not something we should take for granted moving forward.
We’ve gone eight years in which our most contentious Venezuela policy debates were over 1) whether we should sanction a limited number of human rights offenders, 2) if the pro-forma wording of an executive order was perhaps mistaken and 3) if we should hold a vote at the OAS that was almost certain to lose. Given the entire range of diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic tools at the disposal to US policymakers, what we've had is a very limited policy debate over minor details. It's that limited debate over details that makes "sanctions on more Venezuelan state officials and even an end to high-level diplomatic meetings" seem like a radical departure from current policy.
Let me offer scenarios that are worse. I'm not predicting anything here, but I am arguing that we need to think outside the box of what was a plausible range of options for the current administration when thinking about what the next administration has the capacity to do.
1) Making the delusional rantings of Maduro come true.
Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro spent two decades claiming the US was behind insane and untrue plots of military intervention, covert intelligence operations, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation and the backing of an anti-democratic alternative to the current regime. While their conspiracies have been untrue before, it is within US power to make one or many of them a reality.
Could the US use diplomatic and economic leverage to bully and pressure others in Latin America to kick Maduro around more? Could a covert cybersecurity attack damage various industries critical to the economy? Could the US help orchestrate and back a military coup? Yes, yes, and yes. Those tools would be poor uses of US power and I hope they don't occur, but they are all in the US toolbox and wouldn’t be completely unthinkable in a region where US intervention used to be the norm.
2) Working with the Vlads.
If option one is extreme US intervention against Maduro, then option two is the opposite extreme of US policy turning towards supporting Maduro and his most likely successor, Padrino Lopez. While that may seem even less likely than scenario one, it could happen given changes in US-Russia policy. Trump and Tillerson promise a new policy towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin. For example, they promise to work with Putin in Syria, completely reversing the previous US alliance with the rebels there. Putin is an ally of the Venezuelan and Cuban governments with significant investments in both countries. So while it’s not likely, it’s also not unthinkable that the US works with Russia in this hemisphere to support and stabilize the current government (perhaps after Maduro is removed for a more flexible Chavista alternative) and turns its back on pro-democracy forces in Venezuela.
3) The ball is dropped.
The two scenarios above sound really awful, but it’s this third scenario that I fear is the most likely. Given the incoming US administration’s various focuses and lack of policy expertise, it’s completely likely that Venezuela is simply forgotten about, even as it degrades, collapses or implodes. The humanitarian and security crisis worsens, with food shortages leading to starvation and the lack of security leading to the further spread of small arms and light weapons in the hemisphere. 2016 has been bad, but if Venezuela is now forgotten while the situation deteriorates, the country could become far worse than the current situation and go beyond hope of recovery for a long time to come. While some in the hemisphere have long said they want the US to just leave Latin America alone, a lack of US leadership at this critical time makes it far more likely that Venezuela faces a long term period of civil war or other internal conflict and humanitarian disaster.