You could say I’ve got pandemic in my blood. My first American ancestor came to this country in 1665 escaping London’s bubonic plague, which killed a quarter of the city's population.
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Edmund Paget (how our name was spelled then) was among the first in a four-century-long line of Europeans, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans finding refuge here from disease and disaster, natural and manmade. More than that, he’s a reminder to me of what America represents in moments of disease and disaster: a benevolent hand that’s extended even to its enemies. Meaning, a nation that doesn’t try to weaponize pandemics for political gain, at home or abroad.
Which is what I fear the U.S. is doing with regard to Venezuela and Cuba during the COVID-19 crisis.
Last month President Trump extended that helping hand to North Korea and Iran. Even though their governments are two of the foulest dictatorships on earth, neither I nor most Americans complained because it was consistent with the American ethos. What’s not consistent is the fact that Trump still hasn’t (as far as we know) extended even a finger of assistance to Venezuela or Cuba, where the new coronavirus is piling on harsher layers of economic pain. And that’s a disturbing precedent – whether or not the geopolitical aim behind it succeeds.
Since last year the Trump Administration has pledged to bring down the authoritarian socialist regimes in Caracas and Havana. It sees the current pandemic as the cannonball that finally collapses their rotted but resilient citadels. And it doesn’t want to mess that up by offering even a temporary time-out in the U.S. economic sanctions levied against them, including the de facto ban on U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil.
Instead it’s gone full-court press on Venezuela in recent days – indicting President Nicolás Maduro and a host of other regime bosses on narco-terrorism charges, and telling Maduro to step down in exchange for lifting sanctions. Meanwhile it's telling other countries not to let Cuban doctors in to help with coronavirus treatment.
One the one hand, who but hopeless left-wing ideologues doesn’t want to grow democracy in Venezuela and Cuba? But on the other, who but hopeless right-wing ideologues doesn’t realize Trump is doing this in large part to grow his popularity with Venezuelan, Cuban and other Latino voters, who he’s convinced are key to winning Florida in November?
The White House is so excited about the electoral benefit of its tough tack that it’s lost sight of the damage to the U.S.’s image of decency during distress.
No one’s suggesting the U.S. or the rest of the world feel sorry for the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. Venezuelans owe their humanitarian crisis to Maduro, period, and the hyper-corrupt, hyper-incompetent revolution he oversees. The hemorrhaging of tourism revenue that Cuba is suffering right now wouldn’t be so catastrophic if its own hoary revolution had allowed free enterprise and free speech to make up for it.
But what Trump and his hemispheric honchos don’t get is that when an apolitical evil like coronavirus steps in, so do morally conscious powers like the U.S. And rule number one is: call your enemy’s bluff. Let him show the world he’s a jerk – as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did last month when he refused American help and even suggested COVID-19 was a U.S.-made conspiracy “using Iranians’ genetic data.”
Don’t forget Maduro is as loony as the Ayatollah: he once said Washington poisoned his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with the cancer that killed Chávez seven years ago. So there’s a big possibility Maduro would take the bait if, as many economists recommend, the U.S. were to offer to buy Venezuelan oil for a few months – provided payment were in food and medicine that only independent NGOs could distribute inside Venezuela (hardly an unreasonable condition given Maduro’s ruinous administration).
Maduro would likely reject the offer as a yanqui violation of sovereignty. And that would actually bolster the U.S.’s valid argument that this is a regime that cares only about power, not people – and has gotta go. Even if Maduro accepted it, the U.S. still wins: Venezuelans would have Uncle Sam to thank for helping see them through the pandemic without deeper misery.
But Trump has apparently decided he’d rather be seen in his own hemisphere as the guy who didn’t even offer to turn on the hose outside a burning building – because destroying the building’s enemy landlord matters more. That’s not the America my ancestors would have recognized.