National Security Adviser John Bolton just gave a modern-day “Axis of Evil” speech, this one focused on three countries in Latin America.
In a 30-minute address at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower, Bolton said the Trump administration will take a hard line against Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua by sanctioning the countries and cutting off diplomatic relations with them until they meet US demands.
“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere,” Bolton said. “Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.”
Bolton’s speech seems intended to usher in a new era of US relations with Latin America. It portends a massive escalation in US foreign policy: one where America is trying to dictate how three sovereign countries should operate.
The Obama administration famously said that it wouldn’t interfere much in the Western Hemisphere’s affairs. The Trump administration, however, just announced it will do the opposite.
“This is not a time to back away. It’s a time to increase the pressure, not reduce it,” Bolton told the audience after the speech.
The Trump administration’s new policies for Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua
The Trump administration will minimize diplomatic ties with Cuba. Some reports indicate that Cuba — or at least some other country with Cuba’s permission — has attacked US personnel in Havana for the past two years. In response, the US will remove some of its diplomats from the embassy in Cuba. But that’s not all: Washington will also cut off any secret backchannels between the two countries.
The US also won’t allow US cash to reach Cuba’s military, security, or intelligence services. Instead, it plans to impose financial penalties on Cuba until it frees political prisoners, allows for freedom of speech, embraces all political parties, and ensures fair elections.
Bolton said Caracas must release all of the country’s roughly 340 political prisoners. What’s more, it should allow for humanitarian aid to reach those in need, allow for free elections, and champion the rule of law and democratic institutions.
President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order to place new sanctions on Venezuela, Bolton said, which “will target networks operating within corrupt Venezuelan economic sectors and deny them access to stolen wealth.”
One of the biggest moves is to stop people around the world from engaging with Venezuelans involved with its gold sector, which Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me is a lucrative illicit market for the country.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, has been criticized for undermining democracy in his country since he assumed power in 2013.
Maduro ramped up the imprisonment of political opponents. He has cracked down on growing street protests with lethal force. He has repeatedly postponed regional government elections in order to stave off threats to his party’s power. And last year, he held a rigged election for a special legislative body that supplanted the country’s parliament — the one branch of government that was controlled by his political opposition.
Trump has heavily criticized Maduro in the past, and at one point openly considered a military invasion to overthrow him. It’s no surprise, then, that Venezuela featured so heavily in Bolton’s address.
Bolton also criticized Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega for his “regime’s violence and repression against its citizens and opposition members.”
The US doesn’t want Ortega’s government to detain protesters or target civilians anymore, though that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, as more than 300 people died during protests against the government this year.
Bolton said that the Trump administration wants fair and democratic elections soon, or “the Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”
Put together, it’s a marked change for how the US deals with these countries specifically and the region writ large.
“Bolton’s speech today signaled a ratcheting up of pressure on Venezuela and Cuba, but also a new level of administration focus on the crisis in Nicaragua,” Marczak said. “What will be critical is using this moment to strike up new ways in which the US can work jointly with regional and global governments to put even further pressure on Maduro and his cronies.”
Bolton’s speech is troubling
Though Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua do indeed have repressive governments, there are still major problems with the speech.
The first is that it sounds like a renewal of America’s Cold War stance toward Latin America. The US spent decades opposing, and in some cases fighting, communist forces. From Nicaragua to Guatemala to Chile, the US used its power to squash many left-leaning movements in the region mostly because of its opposition to the Soviet Union.
While Bolton didn’t offer Cold War-like policies, the speech definitely echoed many of that era’s sentiments.
Second, Bolton just aligned the US with a repressive politician. He called Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right firebrand who won Brazil’s election on Sunday, a “likeminded leader.”
That’s scary. Bolsonaro has expressed fondness for his country’s past military dictatorship and wants to bring back torture to his country as a way to stem rising crime rates. He may not be a dictator, but he could usher in an era of massive repression and imperil human rights in Latin America’s most populous country. To align the US with Bolsonaro implies the goal really isn’t about improving “freedom,” but about eradicating far-left leadership in Latin America.
Some experts don’t find Bolton’s overture that odd, though.
“It is not surprising that Bolton and the US government would see the president-elect of Brazil as an ally,” Jana Nelson, a Brazil desk officer at the State Department from 2010 to 2015, told me.
“Jair Bolsonaro is an open admirer of Trump. He believes a closer relationship with the United States will be beneficial to Brazil and so do his followers,” she continued, and “it may the first time in over a decade that Brazil will be a reliable ally in the region.”
And finally, Bolton made statements that don’t correlate much with the Trump administration’s policies.
Take this passage aimed directly at members in the audience:
You breathe the free air of this beautiful city. Your children have experienced the possibilities of liberty. And your grandchildren will never know the firsthand heartache of repression. Your descendants can be anything, and achieve anything. ...
And as they grow and flourish in America, they will carry with them your history, your sacrifice, and the memories of your incredible triumph. Their success will be your enduring legacy.
It’s a moving, uplifting message about how people around the world can escape tyranny and thrive in the United States. The problem is the Trump administration wants to deny that opportunity to thousands of people.
About three hours after Bolton’s Thursday address, Trump will give a speech about how he plans to restrict those seeking asylum in the United States. That continues the president’s extremely hard line against immigrants coming to America, which has hit time and time again ahead of midterm elections next week.
He’s even massively curtailed the number of refugees who can come to the US. From October 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, the US admitted only 10,500 refugees. That’s down roughly 74 percent from the same period the year before during the Obama administration. Estimates show the US may only accept around 21,000 refugees in 2018, which would be the lowest total since 1980.
The Trump administration may praise those who sought a better life in the US, then, but it has done little to help those seeking the same fortune.