Jackson Diehl @JacksonDiehl | Trump has been mostly silent on Latin America
 Deputy Editorial Page Editor – January 7, 2018

That’s probably a good thing

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 4.55.06 PM

In the past few weeks, President Trump has traded nuke threats with North Korea, trashed Pakistan and the Palestinians and promised support for protesters in Iran. He has had nothing much to say about the crisis unfolding on America’s doorstep — the ongoing economic, political and humanitarian implosion of Venezuela — which probably is a good thing. In that silence, Latin America may finally be finding its voice.

Last summer Trump spooked the region’s leaders by hinting that the United States would consider drastic measures against the autocratic populist regime of Nicolás Maduro, including a boycott of Venezuelan oil products and even a military invasion. It was a bluff: The White House has since applied more financial sanctions to the regime, while holding off on the oil and military options, and Trump has moved on to other issues.

Now, as the crisis in the once-prosperous nation of 30 million grows direr, other, Spanish-speaking voices are being heard — and they are proposing some of the same remedies that caused shock waves when they came from Washington.

Last week one of Venezuela’s most respected figures, economist and former planning minister Ricardo Hausmann, turned heads by suggesting a military intervention by a coalition of the willing, including the United States. As a host of analysts quickly pointed out, the idea is a non-starter for practical as well as political reasons. But the very fact that a well-known intellectual — Hausmann heads the Center for International Development at Harvard University — would advocate the use of American and other foreign troops to overturn a South American government showed how the extremity of the Venezuela crisis is rupturing generations-old political taboos.

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 5.07.23 PM

At the same time, a senior statesman voiced his support for a less radical and more feasible measure — a U.S. ban on trade in oil and other petroleum products with Venezuela. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, told me in an interview last Thursday that an oil embargo was necessary to force the Maduro government to negotiate seriously with the Venezuela opposition about a democratic transition. At the end of the day, the ultimate sanction and the strongest is going to be needed, he said. And so yes, I am in favor of an oil embargo.

A ban on oil sales could temporarily hurt some U.S. companies and consumers: U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil, though down substantially from a decade ago, were near 800,000 barrels a day last fall. But the sanction would devastate the finances of the already-bankrupt Maduro government, which depends on oil sales for more than 90 percent of its revenue. The regime has tried to diversify its clients by shipping oil to China but obtains little hard currency in return. It also purchases gasoline from the United States as well as light oil to blend into its heavy crude to make it suitable for export.

Almagro is not the first Latin leader to back a boycott: Argentine President Mauricio Macri supported the measure in an interview with the Financial Times in November, adding that he thought it would have “broad support” across Latin America. The Lima Group, an ad hoc coalition of a dozen countries pressing for change in Venezuela, said at its last meeting that more sanctions against the regime might be needed, though it did not spell out what they should be.

That regional leaders would call for such drastic U.S. action is a measure of just how bad the situation has grown in Venezuela. The country is literally starving for food and medicine — most Venezuelans say they do not have access to adequate nourishment, and people are dying for lack of basic antibiotics. Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rate, more than 50 percent a month. Almagro points out that it has produced more migrants fleeing its chaos — some 4 million — than Syria has sent to Europe. One of them, former attorney general Luisa Ortega, told the Wall Street Journal last month that security forces had killed 8,292 people in just 2½ years.

Opponents of a U.S. embargo have typically argued that it would make one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises even worse. But Almagro dismissed that case. The worst sanction that could happen to the population would be to have 10 more years of the dictatorship of Maduro, he said. There is nothing worse than this. Any sanction that generates the prospect of a political change generates real hope.

The way out, as Almagro sees it, is pressure so severe that it forces the regime to allow the complete reconstruction of the electoral system before a free and fair presidential election. He concedes the odds of success are not good: We are defying history, he says. That’s true in more ways than one: It’s not often that Latin Americans publicly appeal for such forceful U.S. intervention.