President Donald Trump deserves credit for talking extensively about the repressive regimes of Venezuela and Cuba in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, even if his overall address was music to the ears of dictators around the world.
Unlike former President Barack Obama, who didn’t mention the word “Venezuela” in his last two annual addresses to the U.N. General Assembly, and only mentioned Cuba to refer to opening diplomatic ties with the island, Trump lashed out against the curtailment of basic freedoms in the two Latin American countries during his speech to the U.N. on Tuesday.
Without repeating his disastrous mistake of Aug. 11, when he casually stated that the United States was considering a “military option” in Venezuela and caused many countries to distance themselves from U.S. diplomatic efforts to isolate the Venezuelan regime, Trump said he will pursue “calibrated sanctions on the socialist regime in Venezuela.”
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Translation: He threatened to escalate gradual financial sanctions against members of Venezuela’s corrupt “revolutionary” elite and government institutions, and asked other countries to do the same. It was a tacit call for multilateral pressure on the Venezuelan regime, rather than U.S. unilateral actions.
“The socialist dictatorship” of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “is completely unacceptable,” Trump told the General Assembly. He added that “we cannot stand by and watch,” and that the international community’s goal should be to “recover freedom, restore the country, return to democracy.”
On Cuba, Trump called the Cuban regime “corrupt” and “destabilizing” and said he will not lift U.S. sanctions on the Cuban government until Cuba enacts “fundamental reforms.” But his statement was largely symbolic: He did not announce the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana nor a drastic curtailment of U.S. flights and cruise ship trips to the island or anything like that.
To be sure, Trump’s speech confirmed that Cuba, Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere are the last of Trump’s international priorities. In his U.N. speech, Trump spoke – in this order – about the crisis with North Korea, Iran, radical Islamic terrorism, “uncontrolled migration” across the world, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Cuba and Venezuela.
Earlier, the State Department had sent reporters a press release stating Trump’s “priorities” in his first speech to the U.N. would be North Korea, Iran and terrorism. There was no mention of Venezuela or Cuba.
Nevertheless, Trump’s references to the lack of fundamental freedoms in Venezuela and Cuba are a welcome development. In light of the Trump administration’s lack of attention to Latin America – and, worse, its hostility to Mexico and its shortsighted views on trade, immigration and environmental issues – they deserve applause.
So why should we still be troubled by Trump’s overall U.N. speech? Because it was a blatant contradiction: It started out by signaling that democracy and human rights will no longer be among the pillars of U.S. foreign policy, and ended by calling for “freedom” in Venezuela.
The new “Trump doctrine” turned its back on a long bipartisan tradition of U.S. presidents to uphold democracy and human rights as fundamental principles. Trump said that, from now on, U.S. foreign policy will be guided by sovereignty, security and military strength.
This poses troubling questions for those concerned about democracy and human rights in Venezuela, Cuba or anywhere else.
Does it mean that Trump is likely to forget about these countries the minute he can strike a deal with Russia or China about higher-ranking priorities, such as North Korea?
Or, just as bad, does it send a signal to other would-be dictators in Latin America and around the world that it’s OK to crush your people as long as you don’t bother Uncle Sam?
The United States has taken this path before, and it didn’t end well. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly said in 1939 that Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza “may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” The result of Roosevelt’s support for Somoza and his disdain for democracy and human rights in Nicaragua was the emergence of leftist guerrillas and anti-American regimes such as the one in power there today.
If the new “Trump doctrine” continues de-emphasizing the defense of democracy and human rights everywhere, Trump’s statements about Venezuela and Cuba will come across as contradictory, opportunistic and not as meaningful as they should be.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.