This column is dedicated to Trump supporters who send me angry emails complaining that I never write anything positive about the U.S. president.
President Donald Trump should be applauded for describing Venezuela in his State of the Union address as a “dictatorship.”
Trump deserves credit for that, even if his speech on Tuesday night was a sugarcoated version of his usual rhetoric demonizing immigrants, with his customary fake facts to please white supremacists and neo-Nazis within his base.
In his speech, Trump said that his administration has imposed tough sanctions “on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.” Although the personal sanctions against top officials of the Venezuelan regime were started by the Obama administration, President Barack Obama had never mentioned Venezuela in his last State of the Union speeches.
Venezuela is, indeed, a dictatorship – as Cuba has long been – by any dictionary’s definition.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro not only has imprisoned opposition leaders, banned key opposition parties and censored the media, he also effectively broke the rule of law in 2016 when he unilaterally stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly from virtually all of its powers. In effect, Maduro abolished the country’s democratically elected congress.
Also to its credit, the Trump administration has escalated economic and travel sanctions against dozens of top officials of Maduro’s ruling elite.
By branding Venezuela a “dictatorship” in his most important annual speech, Trump raised the profile of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis at home and abroad, and gave much-needed moral support to Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition.
He may also help escalate international pressures on the Venezuelan regime at a critical time. Maduro has called a snap election before May, but without independent electoral authorities or credible international observers – and with top opposition leaders banned from running for office.
In a rare show of unity, the United States and all major European and Latin American countries are rejecting Maduro’s sham election plan. But the window of opportunity for collective diplomatic pressures is narrowing: Mexico and Brazil are holding elections later this year, and a leftist populist victory in either country could set back the united regional bloc demanding a restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela.
To be sure, Trump has also made mistakes on Venezuela, like when he carelessly said that, “I am not going to rule out a military option” in that country. Trump’s improvised statement was a propaganda godsend for Maduro, who claims to be a victim of “U.S. imperialism.” It has also led many Venezuelans to sit at home and pin their hopes on a highly unlikely U.S. invasion.
In addition, Trump’s disdain toward Latin America makes it difficult for him to lead – even from behind the scenes – an escalation of hemispheric diplomatic moves against Maduro. Polls show that Trump is the most unpopular U.S. president in Latin America in recent memory, which makes some normally U.S.-friendly presidents keep Trump at a prudent distance.
Trump’s frequent racist remarks, like when he falsely stated that most Mexican undocumented immigrants are “criminals” and “rapists,” or when he called El Salvador, Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” are insults to all Latin Americans.
And some of Trump’s actions have been as bad as his words. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, has ordered massive deportations of 250,000 Salvadorans and more than 50,000 Haitians, and is calling for the expulsion of almost 800,000 “DREAMers,” or young people who were raised in this country after being brought in as infants by undocumented parents.
Unfortunately, in his State of the Union speech, Trump reiterated his call to build a useless $25 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, for which he now wants American taxpayers to pay. The wall would be a monumental waste of money, since only a relatively small percentage of undocumented immigrants enter the country through unprotected areas of the southern border, and most come by plane and overstay their visas.
But it was good for Trump to officially declare Venezuela a “dictatorship.” It helps draw attention to the rogue regime that has captured Venezuela and that has created a humanitarian crisis with regional repercussions.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.