On Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won another six-year term in an election so laughably rigged – and mostly boycotted by Venezuelans – it made last month’s presidential vote in communist Cuba look Jeffersonian.
Video showed Maduro waving to nobody as he cast his ballot. Still, he’ll undoubtedly use the “victory” to harden his socialist dictatorship, which has wrecked Venezuela’s democracy and destroyed its once oil-rich economy.
The re-election farce quickly prompted the U.S. to level more targeted economic sanctions against the Maduro regime. That moved Maduro to expel the U.S.’s top diplomat in Venezuela. And that may compel the Trump Administration to squeeze harder – perhaps with a U.S. embargo on Venezuelan oil.
That pressure campaign’s success will depend a lot on whether the U.S. can get other nations in the hemisphere to join it. But President Trump and his lieutenants haven't made that any easier by cheerleading for regime change in Venezuela via internal military coup or external military intervention.
In fact, whenever Washington tries to effect change in Latin America by diplomatic means, a big stumbling block is its long history of trying to effect change in Latin America by undiplomatic means. Military coups. Proxy wars. Economic pillage.
And sometimes raw violence – as the brutish legacy of Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles, who died Wednesday morning in Hollywood, Fla., at age 90, so darkly reminds us.
Few figures symbolized the maddening hypocrisy America has so often practiced in the Americas – especially its say-one-thing-do-another attitude toward rule of law – and how that just as often alienates Latin American cooperation.
To some in the Cuban exile community, Posada was an anti-communist freedom fighter. That’s bull. He was at best a rogue extremist, at worst a ruthless terrorist. In fact, to many (myself included) it’s a travesty Posada died without being tried in the U.S. on terrorism charges involving two bombings that killed scores of innocent civilians.
The first was the 1976 explosion on a Cuban jetliner that killed all 73 people aboard. Posada was arrested as the alleged mastermind in Venezuela, where he was then a secret police honcho after serving as a CIA operative in the 1960s. But while on trial there he escaped – and allegedly pursued more anti-Cuba mayhem.
That included the 1997 bombings of two Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist. The FBI took evidence of Posada’s involvement so seriously it traveled to Cuba to investigate it and even led a federal grand jury probe. But nothing came of it – even though Posada had bragged to the New York Times about his role. (He later took it back.)
Posada was then convicted in Panama for conspiring to assassinate Fidel Castro at a presidential summit in 2000; but Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso inexplicably pardoned him four years later. The George W. Bush Administration denied accusations it had pressured Moscoso as a favor to Miami’s politically potent Cuban exiles – and Panama’s Supreme Court later overturned the pardon.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
By then Posada had drifted back into the U.S., where he was finally charged in 2009 – not for the bombings but, remarkably, for lying to immigration officials about his involvement in them. In 2011 a jury in El Paso, Texas, acquitted Posada of perjury, and afterward the U.S. refused to touch him as he enjoyed retirement in South Florida.
In 2009, Daniel Erikson, author of “The Cuba War” and later a State Department Latin America analyst, told me:
"[Latin America] sees the Posada case as one of the worst examples of a U.S. double standard regarding the rule of law, a subject we often lecture Latin America about.”
That’s something the Trump Administration should keep in mind as it tightens the screws on Venezuela. It’s something past administrations rarely if ever kept in mind as they tightened the screws on Cuba – and then wondered why the rest of the Americas didn’t follow their moral authority. The rest of the Americas, unfortunately, simply didn’t see enough moral authority to follow.
And the pass the U.S. gave Posada was one big, ugly reason why.
Venezuela urgently needs regime change. But if the U.S. advocates bringing it about the way Posada would have brought it about, it’s going to find itself, like Maduro, waving to nobody.