US shows how to lose friends and alienate people in Latin America

President Nicolas Maduro speaks to thousands of Venezuelans marching in Caracas against US aggression, March 18. Photo via AVN.

Since US President Barack Obama's administration decided to impose new sanctions on Venezuela on March 9, many people, including journalists, have asked what motivated them to do this.

Some are curious over the apparent inconsistency between this move and the White House decision in December to begin normalising relations with Cuba. Others are wondering why the Obama administration would do something that so obviously hurts the United States-backed opposition in Venezuela, at least in the short run.

The main opposition group, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, issued a statement that did not support the sanctions. “Venezuela is not a threat to anyone,” it said in response to the White House’s absurd claim that Venezuela posed an “extraordinary threat” to US national security.

And then there is the problem of Washington’s isolation in the hemisphere, which has grown with this latest move.

The contradiction between the Venezuela sanctions and the opening to Cuba is probably more apparent than real. Most of the US foreign policy establishment has wanted to normalise relations with Cuba since at least the 1990s.

There is money to be made in Cuba and most of those interested in getting rid of the Cuban government seem to believe ― correctly or not ― that it will be easier to do so if the island is opened up to commercial relations with the US.

So normalising relations with Cuba is consistent with the broader strategy of opposition to Venezuela and other left governments that have been elected and re-elected since 1998.

It is only inconsistent if one sees the opening to Cuba as the start of a change in overall US strategy for the region. This would be a change that seeks to reconcile with the huge hemispheric political shift that has taken place in the 21st century, sometimes known as Latin America’s “second independence.”

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa succinctly expressed the regional governments’ disgust with the latest sanctions, saying that it “reminds us of the darkest hours of our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by the imperialists”.

He then asked, “Can’t they understand that Latin America has changed?” The short answer to his question is no.

Washington is still a long way from the hemispheric equivalent of former US president Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. That trip was not just about starting a process to open diplomatic or commercial relations, but also recognising the new reality that an independent China was here to stay.

Even as the normalisation of relations with Cuba proceeds, the White House plans to keep funding “democracy promotion” programs within the country ― along with many others in the region.

The explanation of what the White House ― or whoever influenced them ― hopes to get out of these new Venezuela sanctions is less obvious.

During the Obama presidency, there has been some struggle over Latin America policy among various decision-makers. For example, when Obama wanted to restore ambassadorial relations with Venezuela in 2010, he was sabotaged by right-wing congressional offices and probably their allies in the State Department.

Last year the administration moved a step closer to full diplomatic relations with Venezuela by receiving a Venezuelan charge d’affaires ― one step below ambassador ― in Washington. This, too, was met with resistance from the right, which sought to block progress toward full diplomatic relations.

The latest sanctions, like the law approved by US Congress in December, must be seen in this light. They represent a victory for the forces that want to prevent the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Although the loudest public voice of this faction consists of the far right in Congress, they have important allies within the administration, including in the State Department and Pentagon. Washington’s support for the 2009 right-wing military coup in Honduras was perhaps the most important of many examples. It was not a result of pressure from the right in Congress, but came from deep within the Obama administration.

These people are playing the long game, and appear to be willing to sacrifice some political capital ― in Caracas as well as Washington ― to try to delegitimise Venezuela's government.

Like much of the opposition in Venezuela, these US policymakers are not committed to elections as the means of deciding who controls the government.

Although Venezuela is facing economic troubles right now, nobody knows when oil prices might rebound, or when the government might fix its most important economic problems.

Even if the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly elections later this year, that would not put them in control of the national government, any more than the Republicans’ current control of Congress does in the United States. So the hard-liners want to strike now, in the hope that this will advance their strategy of “regime change”.

Latin America's governments understand this strategy and see it as an ugly threat to democracy in the region; hence their quick response and fierce opposition to the sanctions in regional meeting after regional meeting.

Like the Republicans who thought they were being clever with their invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress or their senatorial letter to the government of Iran, the architects of this new sanctions policy will soon find that they have miscalculated.

[Reprinted from Venezuelan Analysis.]

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