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Trump Asks For Trouble In Venezuela

One of the biggest fiascoes of Barack Obama’s presidency occurred when he warned the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons against rebels would breach a “red line.” It was a clear threat of a U.S. air strike. But a year later, the regime carried out an attack with sarin gas – and the threat proved hollow.

The reversal was a public humiliation and a lesson in the risks of blithely raising the stakes in an international confrontation. Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, later admitted, “We paid a price” for the bluff.

Obama should not have bet that he could get his way through intimidation. He should not have made a promise he wasn’t prepared to keep. His retreat made future presidential ultimatums less believable and encouraged enemies to test our resolve. It also emboldened Vladimir Putin to expand his military role in the Syrian civil war, which helped secure Assad’s victory.

Donald Trump either learned from that mistake or he didn’t. But last weekend, as the president was crowing about his attorney general’s summary of the special counsel’s report, Putin sent two Russian air force planes to Venezuela, carrying close to 100 Russian troops.

Their arrival was a show of support for the government of President Nicolas Maduro as he strives to suppress an opposition movement. Putin acted in defiance of the Trump administration, which has used all the leverage it can muster to engineer a regime change in Caracas.

Vice President Mike Pence has said, “Maduro must go.” It was an unintended echo of what Obama said in 2011: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But like Assad, Maduro is strangely unwilling to abide by American preferences.

On Wednesday, Trump complained, “Past administrations allowed this to happen,” as if controlling internal events in a sovereign nation were our prerogative. He also upped the ante. “Russia has to get out,” he declared. And if Russia doesn’t? “All options are open,” he warned.

But the options are dwindling. The administration imagined that economic chaos and popular discontent in Venezuela, combined with international sanctions and diplomatic pressure, would topple Maduro. But they haven’t, and an attempt by the opposition to bring food and medicine over the border failed when security forces opened fire.

The Russians, who are used to being appeased by Trump, are in no mood to capitulate. In response to his demand that they leave, Kremlin officials likened the U.S. to “an elephant in a china shop” and invited him to pull U.S. forces out of Syria.

“We do not interfere in the domestic affairs of Venezuela,” a Putin spokesman said. “We count on these third countries to follow our example and allow Venezuelans to decide their own fate.” In other words, butt out.

So what choices are left? The international effort to squeeze Maduro until he surrenders hasn’t worked, and our experience with other rogue regimes — North Korea, Iran, Libya — suggest that economic and diplomatic penalties won’t suffice to break the regime’s hold on power. Huffing and puffing rarely blows a dictator’s house down.

In that case, Trump will be left with two unappetizing options. The first is to follow the Obama model — backing down from the demands and warnings he has issued to Putin and Maduro. That would mean the indignity of tolerating a neighboring enemy that, like Cuba, can revel in standing up to the Yankee imperialists, with help from Moscow.

The second is to take military action that could lead the U.S. into a dangerous war against Maduro’s army — or, in the worst case, direct combat with a nuclear-armed foe. Does anyone remember the Cuban missile crisis? Does anyone want to re-enact it to see if we’ll get lucky again?

The optimistic view is that Trump, being averse to costly foreign entanglements and eager to stay on good terms with Putin, will end up walking away in a fog of bluster or just drop his threat and pretend he never made it.

The pessimistic view is that just as he has been unwilling to look weak by getting out of Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, he will decide that preserving an image of toughness is worth whatever it costs in American lives and money.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

 

Danziger: Hunger Games

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

Trump Courts Trouble In Venezuela

When it comes to foreign policy, it’s never clear whether American presidents have forgotten past failures or they have studied them closely in order to duplicate them. Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s aggressive policy toward Venezuela has many precedents that suggest pessimism is in order.

At a speech in Miami on Monday, he called on the Venezuelan military to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, the leftist strongman whose socialist policies have turned the oil-rich country into a riot of economic disarray. Trump’s speech came on the heels of new U.S. economic sanctions meant to help topple the regime.

The administration has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself the legitimate president following rigged elections last year. It has set a deadline of Saturday for the Maduro regime to allow trucks to bring food and medicine over the border from Colombia.

Trump threatened members of Venezuela’s military with retribution if they remain loyal to Maduro. He held out the prospect of U.S. military intervention, saying, “All options are open.” In January, national security adviser John Bolton was seen holding a notepad with the words “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

In this effort, the administration is not drawing on successful interventions of the past. It’s taking the blooper reel as a guide. We have ample experience to indicate this approach wouldn’t work and could lead us into disaster.

Barack Obama provided a lesson in the perils of assuming that a firm U.S. push will bring down a besieged autocrat. During the heady days of the Arab Spring, as protests roiled Syria, he announced, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was eight years ago, and Assad had the last laugh on Obama, who was faulted for failing to back up his words with forceful action.

Obama’s faith that vocal support for the opposition would turn the tide was unfounded. Trump is courting a similar error. Should the Venezuelan military ignore his plea and Maduro keep his grip on power, the administration would have to choose between Obama-like ineffectuality and military action.

The latter, of course, involves the prospect of shedding American blood in an effort to restore democracy to a country of no strategic importance to the United States. As we discovered in Somalia (1993) and Lebanon (1983), even small-scale missions can turn shockingly bloody, exacting a far higher price than the American people are prepared to pay.

The administration’s demands may do more to help Maduro than to hurt him. Latin Americans have long, unhappy memories of U.S. domination and meddling in the internal affairs of our neighbors, and Trump is hardly a president to allay suspicions about our motives. Just the opposite: He bears a resemblance to corrupt populist caudillos, who have so often impeded democracy in the region. Venezuelans may figure he wants to seize Venezuela’s oil as he thinks we should have done with Iraq’s.

Americans may not recall that in 2002, George W. Bush endorsed a coup against Maduro’s immediate predecessor, Hugo Chavez, which removed him from office — for all of 47 hours. He then regained power and held on to it until his death in 2013.

If Maduro holds on, the administration may have to fall back on economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. If you want to gauge how well that is likely to work, consider the case of Cuba’s Communist government, which has withstood Washington’s hostility for nearly 60 years.

That regime also fended off the 1961 U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion, mounted by exiles bent on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Despite the widespread assumption that the revolution would perish with him, it survived his 2016 demise.

If Maduro does fall, though, there is hardly a guarantee of a happy outcome. Obama’s decision to use air power against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi helped bring him down, but in the aftermath, Libya fell into a chaotic civil war that is still going on.

Even in the worst of places, regime change is an unreliable formula for peace, prosperity or democracy.

Trump ran on an “America first” theme, promising that the U.S. would stop jumping into foreign crises and conflicts in the name of spreading our values. But when a socialist despot sows turmoil in our hemisphere, he falls back on the old-fashioned American policy of wielding a big stick.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: People line up expecting to buy food outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Triumphant Venezuela Opposition Looks To Boost Economy, Free Prisoners

By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea

CARACAS (Reuters) — Venezuela’s opposition vowed on Monday to revive the OPEC nation’s troubled economy and free jailed political activists after winning control of the legislature for the first time in 16 years of Socialist rule.

By afternoon, some results from Sunday’s election were not yet in, but the Democratic Unity coalition had already won a commanding majority in the 167-member National Assembly.

Opposition leaders said final tallies showed they reached the crucial bar of two-thirds. There was no confirmation of that from the election board, which still has 22 seats to announce.

If they have reached two-thirds, or at least 112 seats, the opposition could flex its muscles far more against President Nicolas Maduro, by shaking up institutions such as the courts and election board widely viewed by Venezuelans as pro-government.

The 53-year-old Maduro, handpicked by Chavez but lacking his charisma and political guile, quickly accepted defeat in a speech to the nation in the early hours of Monday that calmed fears of violence in a country long riven by political strife.

After securing the assembly from the “Chavismo” movement, named for late former socialist President Hugo Chavez, the opposition quickly set out its priorities.

“It’s a great opportunity for us, this protest vote,” prominent opposition leader Henrique Capriles said following a win attributed largely to voters punishing the Socialists for Venezuela’s deep economic and social crisis.

Coalition head Jesus Torrealba said the opposition would seek to modify the Central Bank law, in an effort to reduce indiscriminate printing of money that has driven the world’s highest rate of inflation.

Though it will not have the power to radically overhaul the economy from the legislature, the opposition is also promising new laws to stimulate the private sector and to roll back nationalizations.

The opposition also wants to pass an amnesty law for jailed opponents of Maduro when the new assembly begins work on Jan. 5.

Venezuela’s best-known jailed politician is Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to nearly 14 years on charges of promoting political violence in 2014 that killed 43 people. But the opposition has a list of what it says are more than 70 other political prisoners.

BONDS RISE

Investors reacted positively to the OPEC nation’s swing away from the left, with dollar bonds rising strongly on hopes of business-friendly change.

On the official count by the election board, the opposition had 99 seats to the Socialists’ 46, with 22 seats yet to be announced. The opposition can now exercise control over the budget, begin investigations that could embarrass the government, and fire ministers.

Torrealba has also said the assembly will open an investigation into the arrest last month of two relatives of Maduro, nephews of his wife, caught in a sting in Haiti and indicted in a New York court on charges of cocaine smuggling.

The United States, which has had an acrimonious relationship with Venezuela under both Chavez and Maduro, has long accused the Socialists of complicity in the drug trade, as well as human rights abuses.

The government dismisses those charges as lies and frequently recalls U.S. support for a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote showed Venezuelans’ “overwhelming desire” for change and urged dialogue among political parties to resolve the country’s problems.

A former bus driver and foreign minister who narrowly won election in 2013 after Chavez died from cancer, Maduro may face a backlash in the ruling party and from grassroots supporters who think he has betrayed his predecessor’s legacy.

Although his term ends in 2019, hardline opposition leaders want to oust him in a recall referendum next year. They would require nearly 4 million signatures to force the recall vote.

“I can’t see this government finishing its term because it is too weak,” said opposition leader Henry Ramos, touted as a possible leader for the new assembly. “Internal frictions are beginning. They’re blaming each other for this huge defeat.”

‘COUNTER-REVOLUTION’

Maduro, whose government has replaced Cuba as Latin America’s most vocal adversary of the United States, blamed the election on an “economic war” waged by business leaders and other opponents out to sabotage the economy and bring him down.

“In Venezuela, a counter-revolution won, not the opposition,” he added in his speech on Monday.

Many Venezuelans have not bought that argument, though, blaming him for the runaway inflation, shortages from milk to medicines, and a devalued currency that trades on the black market at nearly 150 times its strongest official rate.

Maduro’s persistence with complex currency and price controls have contributed to Venezuela’s economic distortions but, unlike Chavez, he has also had to contend with a plunge in the price of Venezuela’s only significant export, oil.

“This is Nicolas Maduro’s defeat, not Chavez’s,” said Humberto Lopez, 57, a diehard Chavista well-known to Venezuelans for walking the streets dressed as Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “I’m not hugely surprised.”

Underlining the unprecedented mood in Venezuela, videos online showed five prominent socialist politicians – including Chavez’s brother Adan – being booed at voting centers on Sunday, with crowds yelling “the government will fall!” or “thief!”.

The government’s defeat was another disappointment for Latin America’s bloc of left-wing governments following last month’s swing to the center-right in Argentina’s presidential election.

But various regional leaders praised Maduro for accepting defeat so quickly. And words of consolation came from the Venezuelan government’s closest ally, Communist-run Cuba.

“I’m sure new victories for the Bolivarian and Chavista Revolution will come under your leadership,” President Raul Castro wrote to Maduro, referring to Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar as well as his late friend Chavez.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons in Caracas; Daniel Trotta in Havana, Danny Ramos in La Paz,; Sujata Rao in London, Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Girish Gupta, Kieran Murray and Frances Kerry)

Photo: Lilian Tintori (centre L), wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, celebrates next to candidates of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) during a news conference on the election in Caracas, December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins