COMMENTARY: What’s next for Venezuela – Trump v. Putin in the Americas

Ambassador Curtis Ward

The Trump administration’s relentless economic and political pressure on Venezuela government over the past two years is rattling Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Despite his braggadocio – putting on a brave face – Maduro is feeling the pressure. He is extremely worried that Trump will take or engineer some form of military action to remove him from power. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and the constant pressure being put on governments in the hemisphere by U.S. government officials increase Maduro’s isolation. In light of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation, the prospects of military action against Venezuela are now more likely than ever. Considered to be the only remaining constraint on Trump’s reckless use of military force, Mattis leaves a void and his role in the Trump administration is not expected to be replicated by his eventual replacement.

Most governments in the region, already unhappy with the deterioration of democracy and freedoms in Venezuela, the abrogation of human rights protection, and the abuse of the legislative and justice systems are not willing or able to oppose the political pressure or the coercive sanctions measures imposed by the Trump administration on Maduro’s government. Some of these governments were close friends of Venezuela and have benefited over the years from Venezuela’s oil riches. Some were very dependent on Venezuela’s largesse. Now, under U.S. pressure they abandon Venezuela, and their focus has turned to eking out exemptions from the effects of U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuelan targets. Exemptions come with a price. Those granted exemptions are required to support Trump administration’s Venezuela policy.
US President Donald Trump

In addition to the external economic implications of Venezuela’s problems, additional impact is felt more broadly in the region.  Venezuela’s problems are not contained within the country’s borders. Neighboring countries are particularly impacted by a stream of refugees which are creating humanitarian burdens for these governments. Anti-Venezuelan immigrant sentiments are bubbling up to a boiling point in neighboring countries, and support for Maduro’s regime has all but disappeared. If the current trend continues unabated, the problems will get worse for Maduro.

One geopolitical reality that is proven time and again is that certain state and non-state actors take advantage of conflicts and destabilized environments to establish a foothold.  We see this often in the case of terrorist groups and rogue states taking advantage of weak governments. We’ve seen terrorist groups play this role in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, in a number of countries in northern Africa, such as Libya and Tunisia, and a number of sub-Sharan African countries. We see this being played out by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and by Iran, especially where the U.S. is pursuing a policy against the government of the target country. We’ve seen this in Syria, and we saw this in Russia’s assistance to North Korea to evade U.S. sanctions.
Not since Russia’s engagement with Cuba in 1959 and subsequent years, have we seen this level of Russian military engagement in the hemisphere. Over the past decade plus, Russia’s economic engagement has been growing in the Western Hemisphere. We have seen Russian investments in the bauxite/alumina industry led by one of the world’s largest players in the industry – Rusal U.C., a Russian conglomerate with close ties to Putin.  We now see the Russian government investing in Venezuela’s oil industry to the tune of some five billion U.S. dollars and another billion dollars in Venezuela’s gold mining industry. Russia has extended a lifeline to the dying Venezuela oil industry and by extension, Venezuela’s economy and the Maduro regime.
Russia’s direct investments in Venezuela flout U.S. sanctions as Russia has, in aiding North Korea to evade U.S. sanctions. Russia does not need Venezuela’s oil.  As a matter of fact, increase in the production of Venezuelan oil has the potential of reducing the price of oil on the global market. Depressed oil price hurts Russia’s economy which is already hurting from U.S. sanctions against Russia’s oil industry and the current low global oil prices triggered in part by increased U.S. oil production.
Almost simultaneously with announcement of Russia’s $6 billion investments in Venezuela, it was announced two weeks later in Moscow, that Russia was stepping up its military engagement with Venezuela and in the hemisphere. Since then, on December 17, 2018, two long-distance Russian Tu-160 strategic nuclear bombers landed in Venezuela, as part of a military exercise. Also included, are a Russian military transport plane and an Il-62 passenger jet with 10,000 miles flight capability. This intrusion of Russian military aircraft in the hemisphere is not intended as a one-off exercise.  The Kremlin also announced that Russia was entering into an agreement with Venezuela for Russia to establish a permanent military base on La Orchila, a Caribbean island owned by Venezuela.
There are many questions raised by Russia’s stepped up engagement in the region. Here are some examples. Given the effect of increased oil production on global oil prices, how does Russia benefit from more oil on the global market? Why would Russia be interested in further depressing global oil prices? Is it that Russia is hoping to control Venezuela oil thus giving Putin control over a much greater portion of global oil resources and production? Will lower prices negatively affect U.S. expensive shale oil production further? Will Guyana’s new oil discovery be negatively impacted? Will Russia’s military presence in Venezuela embolden Maduro in his claims against Guyana’s territory? I will treat these questions as rhetorical for now, as it is impossible to provide comprehensive answers in just one article.
It is too soon to settle on Putin’s true intention. However, I do not believe he wants to trigger a military confrontation with Trump at this time in the hemisphere. The situation in Venezuela bears no similarity to the situation in Syria which is on Russia’s border – in Russia’s neighborhood. That being the case, Russia’s military presence in Venezuela, while providing a shield for Maduro against the United States, could also constrain Maduro from any reckless military adventure against Guyana.  In the meantime, Russia’s expanded role in Nicaragua should be watched carefully by the governments in the region. Nicaragua will be the subject for a separate discussion.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post

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12 Comments

  1. ATKINSON
    January 2, 2019

    This guy again, if there was an award for who was the ambassador who has attended the most cocktail party’s in the last 25 year in new york city washington, and europe, he would be one of the top five candidates, on the list. Maybe he should ask maduro why is vennezuela and OPEC country is broke, with all that oil they have. Or could it be after send billion of dollars to the socialist paradise Cuba, to keep the castro’s afloat, and giving millions to the DLP evil “Dr Supermo” cabal, maybe that that problem, The venezuela’s could not built a coffee plant, abattoir, petro casa or an airport runway, to save their life, And mister Ambassador is blaming america and Trump. While he reside in america, maybe he should move back to elizabeth jamacia or caracas, and have cocktails with maduro

  2. Anonymous
    December 31, 2018

    Tony, do you know that Venezuela and Cuba are long time supporters of Polisario, as are the U.N. Sometimes you are not that clever bro. but plain stupid. You have no respect for the intelligence of Dominican people and I wonder if you really are a patriot.

  3. J.john-Charles
    December 31, 2018

    Correction..it should be..This is a..

  4. J.John-Charles
    December 31, 2018

    Thiid is a paradox with a capital.P Venezuela is giving Dominica and other in the region millions of $s,at the same time the Venezuelans are starving.Faith Baptist Church which I am a member have missionaries in Venezuela.So we are helping the people through them.They sent us a video,telling and showing us their conditions.I sat in church seeing and hearing for myself,tears ran down my face.Things that we are taking for granted in Da.is luxury for them,things like toilet paper,corn flakes, flour, sugar etc,etc.
    They have to stand in line 6 at times 7 hours to collect a little remittance or ration.Some abandon their children seeking refuge in the neighboring countries.and in some cases are no wanted.Not too long ago the Trinidadian authorities had problems with them.
    This is the fruit of socialism,Cuba,N.Korea,Nicaragua.Government confiscation of private property and have people standing in line receiving hand-outs and the comrades with big bank accounts all over

  5. J.John-Charles
    December 31, 2018

    Trump ran against the U.S.getting involved in war’s all over the world.He was against the war in Iraq which is 15yrs and counting.The one in Afghanistan is 16yrs.Syria.Obama was the one who involved the U.S.The military intervention in Libya 2011 again Obama.We would do well to remember Trump took office January 20 2017.So Curtis Ward saying. “Trump’s reckless use of military force.” is faults, better known as Fake News.And this is the kind of disinformation Trump have been fighting.
    Ward is using James Mattis resignation to support his claim against the president,but he resigned because he wanted Trump to leave the Soldiers in Syria to fight.
    On the other hand the president made it abundantly clear if any one mess with the U.S.he will not hesitate to turn the enemy into powder..
    All the best for the new year.Again be ready,for Christ may come in 2019…Amen

  6. Sense out of nonsense
    December 30, 2018

    Also another reason why many of these countries are making a stand against Maduro now is because they are being negatively affected by this crisis and they are frustrated that Maduro is refusing to do anything to solve the problem.

    It is not about US pressure. If anything the US is putting pressure through the OAS and through relations with countries like Colombia to reach to a peaceful solution that does not involve military intervention.

    If anything the only countries who are making their decisions based on some type of solidarity are countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua who are beholden to the Maduro regime because they benefit from their handouts.

    The same way that Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua will refuse to speak agianst the Maduro government because of the Petro Caribe deal.

  7. Sense out of nonsense
    December 30, 2018

    “Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation, the prospects of military action against Venezuela are now more likely than ever. Considered to be the only remaining constraint on Trump’s reckless use of military force”

    Wait what? Mattis left because Trump was going to pull out of Syria and potentially remove troops from Aghanistan. He basically left because Trump is taking a non-interventionist position while Mattis and the neocons believe in interventionism and regime change. If anything Mattis leaving is an indication that it is even less likely that there will be any type of millitary intervention.

    And “Trump’s reckless use of military force” – what? When has Trump used military force recklessly?

    And the countries are not giving up support of Maduro because of US pressure, they are doing so because most of these countries are being relieved of the leftist governments that have ruled for years, who were all part of this left wing movement in south america

  8. Gouvelma
    December 30, 2018

    America is not the only friend in this earth. Who gave them authority to police the world. Countries are free to decide who their allies are. I would encourage Venezuela and all other you territories that feel there isn’t enough support from America to create alliance with Russia. That surely would gain America’s attention. It is either they support it live in fear of the enemy in their back yard. After all what is the Caribbean benefiting from America other than nationals running there and living like crabs in hole. Little Cuba which America hates is of more assistance to us than big America. So Venezuela and other islands would be well advised to let their nets down where the fish can be caught. That applies to Dominica to, in my opinion.

  9. Gouvelma
    December 30, 2018

    America is not the only friend in this earth. Who gave them authority to police the world. Countries are free to decide who their allies are. I would encourage Venezuela and all other you truer that feel there isn’t enough support from America to create alliance with Russia. That surely would gain America’s attention. It is either they support it live in fear of the enemy in their back yard. After all what is the Caribbean benefiting from America other than nationals running there and living lime crabs in hole. Little Cuba which America hates is of more assistance to us than big America. So Venezuela and other islands would be well advised to let their nets down where the fish can be caught. That applies to Dominica to, in my opinion.

  10. The guard
    December 30, 2018

    Rubbish American colonialist perspective. USS does not respect the law of countries which do not allow their corporations to loot their resources. Plain and simple.

  11. December 30, 2018

    Venezuela is in the position it is in mainly because of American Greed. The US have been putting economic pressure on Venezuela long before Trump came to office. It started when Venezuela took control of its oil industry, so the economic chaos that is taking place in Venezuela is exactly what the US wants.

  12. Pipo
    December 30, 2018

    Angelo warned us. Thats why he was too hot to handle for Q.and Skerrit put pressure on them to terminate him I believe.
    Next you will see the russian vory, their maffia coming to play in Dominica, specially round Possie, they have plenty us dollars looking for a home, trust me.

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