The administration is sticking to an approach that it has favored against adversaries from Iran to North Korea: gradual economic strangulation.
In the battle for the future of Venezuela, Russia is sending in military planes. China is still importing Venezuelan oil as repayment for billions of dollars in loans to Caracas. And the United States, among other things, is implementing Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996.
The utilization of the arcane measure was just one of many signals U.S. officials sent on Wednesday that they will apply more pressure to oust Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, by taking on the repressive socialist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua as well.
It was also a clear sign that while President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to make noise about military options to deter Maduro’s foreign patrons and topple the strongman, the administration is sticking to an approach that it has favored against adversaries from Iran to North Korea: gradual economic strangulation.
But the open question is whether slow suffocation will prove a match for the myriad international actors that have shored up support for Maduro, including Cuba’s security forces that have long operated in Venezuela and Russia’s military personnel and warplanes.
The Trump administration has moved in dramatic fashion to try to dislodge Maduro, first by recognizing National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, then by slapping a de facto oil embargo on the country. But months later, even though the United States has fired the biggest guns in its diplomatic arsenal, Maduro remains entrenched in office. So U.S. officials are turning to small arms and expanding the fight.
Branding the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan leaders as the “three stooges of socialism,” the “troika of tyranny,” and the “sordid triangle of terror”—this was not exactly a subtle speech—National Security Adviser John Bolton argued on Wednesday while addressing the administration’s Latin America policy that “the walls are closing in” on Maduro, that the Castros’ successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, “will be next,” and that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega would follow.
In his address, Bolton unveiled new sanctions against Venezuela’s central bank, a Nicaraguan financial institution, and the Nicaraguan president’s son. But the most consequential measures related to Cuba, in a near-wholesale rejection of Barack Obama’s efforts to eliminate decades-old U.S. policies of isolating the island to oust the Castro regime. Bolton put a limit on how much money U.S. citizens can send back to Cuba ($1,000 a person per quarter) and restricted “nonfamily” travel to the country, potentially dealing a major blow to the cruise and air travel that blossomed under Obama. Bolton also promised a crackdown on the subsidized oil that Venezuela ships to Cuba.
The enforcement of Title III of the Libertad Act, which was announced earlier in the day by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, means that certain U.S. nationals will soon be able to sue foreign companies in Cuba that “traffic” in property seized in the 1959 Cuban Revolution. You could, for example, sue a European hotel company for operating on land the Castro regime stole from your family half a century ago. This right has been on the books for more than 20 years, but no president has ever implemented it. The measure implicates thousands of properties worth billions of dollars, and raises the risk of anybody doing business anywhere in Cuba, given the likelihood that they might end up profiting, somehow, from stolen land.
What the action also does, however, is highlight the administration’s difficulty in achieving its goals in another country entirely: Venezuela.
“The Cuban regime has for years exported its tactics of intimidation, repression, and violence,” Pompeo told reporters at a briefing about the new policy. “They’ve exported this to Venezuela in direct support of the former Maduro regime. Cuban military intelligence and state security services today keep Maduro in power.”
Trump began to reverse his predecessor’s Cuba opening back in 2017—a thaw Pompeo on Wednesday called “a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights.”
Since then, though, the Trump administration has developed another interest in pressuring Cuba, which provides a vital source of support to Maduro. Bolton also asserted that U.S. sanctions should be a warning to Moscow, whose support for Maduro’s government the Trump administration has acknowledged is a “shot in the arm” for the Venezuelan leader. Economic interventions such as tightening restrictions on Cuba could punish or deter international investors, the United States believes.
“Historically, economic-sanctions programs are most effective when they’re multilateral,” Kara Bombach, the co-chair of the export-controls-and-economic-sanctions practice at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, told us. “With the Cuban embargo, the U.S. has sort of been swimming upstream because they’re the only one implementing an embargo.” In discouraging investment in Cuba through the Libertad Act, she said, the administration is effectively forcing other countries to join its own economic-pressure campaign, whether or not they’re willing.
“Even though we’ve had some strong impacts from the existing sanctions, we’re not at the end of the rope yet,” said a senior State Department official in a recent interview. The official acknowledged that the existing sanctions, including the oil embargo, would take time to show clear effects, though there has already been a reduction in Venezuelan oil exports. But the administration remains optimistic about Guaidó’s prospects. And on the economic-pressure side, the official added, “there’s still a lot more that can be done there.”
Since taking office, Trump has spoken from time to time of taking military action in response to Venezuela’s economic and political implosion under Maduro. But the president, while more inclined toward military brinkmanship than Obama, isn’t much more interested in getting embroiled in foreign wars than his predecessor was. While administration officials have hewed to the rote line that “all options are on the table,” they’ve also repeatedly stressed that the approach they’re taking is diplomatic in nature. And while the targets for U.S. sanctions are virtually limitless, particularly if countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua are added to the mix, the administration has few diplomatic fronts left to explore.
Faced with tough talk from Washington, Russia appears to be calling America’s bluff, just as it did during its ultimately successful military intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration demanded that Assad step down, even as it insisted that the only solution to the Syrian civil war was a political one.
As one U.S. official told The New York Times at the time, Vladimir Putin demonstrated that there was indeed a military solution, “just not our solution."