Jorge G. Castañeda
Oct. 8, 2019, 11:00 a.m. ET
During John Bolton’s recently ended tenure as national security adviser, he convinced President Trump that the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro was on the verge of losing power. Mr. Bolton is reported to have been the architect of the several failed attempts to unseat President Maduro, a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s bluster.
We now know that Mr. Maduro’s fall was not imminent. Instead, Mr. Bolton bluffed on the high-ranking military officials who were about to betray Mr. Maduro; he bluffed on the number of people who would take to the streets in April to try to overthrow the Maduro regime; and he also seemed to believe that sanctions would work very quickly. Most important, though, his biggest mistake was to proceed along those lines without any Plan B in case this Plan A did not work. In the end, he has succeeded only in making Mr. Maduro stronger.
The best proof of this foreign policy debacle is that last week, for the first time since January, Mr. Maduro traveled abroad, choosing Moscow, logically enough, as his destination. He also achieved his first diplomatic victory in years last week at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, persuading enough countries, including China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Mexico, to vote for a resolution to promote a peaceful solution the Venezuelan crisis without foreign interference, which should be taken with a grain of salt coming from Mr. Maduro. He was, however, forced to accept the creation of a fact-finding mission to investigate the most egregious human rights abuses in Venezuela. This setback will come back to haunt him.
Mr. Maduro also pulled out of talks with the opposition in Barbados without serious consequences, another sign of his resilience. Washington’s lack of a Plan B has allowed the Venezuelan dictator to outlast his foreign and domestic opponents. This is almost reminiscent of the Bay of Pigs.
Today, Mr. Maduro appears to be further from being ousted than he was a year ago. Despite the steady flow of refugees out of the country — which has already topped four million — and a crumbling economy, the Venezuelan dictatorship persists. The question now is if a new way forward can finally be forged by the so-called Lima Group of Latin American democracies opposed to Mr. Maduro, the European Union, Washington and the United Nations human rights system.
The diplomatic approach toward Venezuela should be thoughtful, systematic and patient. Plan B would consist in staying the course, continue mounting pressure and refraining from generating false expectations because of impatience or bureaucratic infighting. No more shooting from the hip or improvisation.
The sanctions regime imposed by the United States, mainly on oil-related transactions, financial or otherwise, needs to be strengthened if they are to be effective. The European Union must also do its share on sanctions, and the union’s new foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, should not waver. It is one thing for Norway to sponsor talks between the opposition and Mr. Maduro’s regime; it is another for the Europeans to get cold feet and accept Mr. Maduro’s grip on power despite the widespread human rights violations by and clear illegality of his government.
The investigation of those violations, in Geneva and at the Organization of American States, must conducted with vigor. A devastating report by the United Nations human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, found more than 6,000 extrajudicial executions in the past five years in Venezuela; the fact-finding mission should do its job as expeditiously as possible, in spite of Mr. Maduro’s reluctance. There need to be more specific case studies, more precise denunciations and more individualized responsibilities for human rights violations.
In September, 16 of the 19 nations that are signatories of the Rio Treaty, a regional security compact, voted to impose additional economic sanctions on Mr. Maduro and his associates. Colombia, which led the initiative, has to present a better case for its claims that Mr. Maduro is protecting armed groups within its territory, than outdated or uncredited photographs taken in Colombia.
Venezuela poses a real threat to regional peace and security, and further sanctions should be applied as a result of the vote. The Rio Treaty was never a great idea, but it can be used to enforce more sanctions short of a military action.
Lastly, if serious economic difficulties are once again besieging Cuba, a country on which Mr. Maduro’s survival depends entirely, for security and intelligence reasons, Havana should be enticed or pressured into understanding that he has to go. It probably will never accept some type of quid pro quo, but nothing is lost in trying. Mr. Bolton forgot this “minor” detail: Without a carrot and stick approach for Cuba, there is no reason for Havana to be helpful. Raúl Castro, who is still first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and the island strongman, knows Mr. Maduro will not last forever; the question is when he is willing to jump from a melting iceberg to another.
Several Latin American presidents recently urged Moscow and Beijing to cooperate with their efforts and stop supporting the Venezuelan regime with money and vetoes at the United Nations Security Council. They could perhaps be most useful in convincing the Cubans that though the jig is up, there could still be something in it for them if they contribute to Mr. Maduro’s departure and the scheduling of prompt, free and internationally supervised elections.
Mr. Trump knows all about quid pro quos, even if Mr. Bolton did not. For all the wrong reasons, the American president has gained leverage over Havana by rolling back almost all of Barack Obama’s normalization. Now he should use it.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University and a contributing opinion writer.