At the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, Venezuela’s crisis received considerable attention. But while President Trump’s confrontational remarks met similarly fierce rhetoric from Venezuela’s government, they proved a temporary distraction from genuine efforts to address the situation through productive multilateral pressure.
On September 18, Trump held a “working dinner” on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with the presidents of Colombia, Panama, and Brazil, as well as Argentina’s vice president and the foreign ministers of all four countries. The meeting focused on Venezuela, and the ways in which the countries present could ramp up international pressure on Venezuela to resolve its political crisis.
The act of convoking the meeting was an interesting move from the Trump administration, as Venezuela is perhaps the one element of his administration’s Latin America foreign policy in which regional governments have shown a clear interest in collaborating. His rollback of U.S.-Cuba ties, his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his promises to build a border wall have all caused friction with countries in the region. The week before the planned meeting saw yet another stumbling block in U.S. relations with an important Latin American ally when Trump announced he had “seriously considered” decertifying Colombia’s counterdrug efforts.
With all of this, expectations were not high ahead of Trump’s meeting with regional leaders. However, reports suggest that the meeting saw indications that the U.S. president understands the importance of developing an approach to Venezuela in coordination with other countries of the Americas. According to Reuters, Latin American leaders present say that Trump appeared interested in their thoughts on the appropriate response to Venezuelan crisis, and heard their rejections of U.S. military intervention and economic sanctions that could hurt the general populace. While no decisions were taken, Brazilian President Michel Temer told reporters after the meeting: “Evidently, everyone at the table wants a democratic solution in Venezuela, but no one wants a foreign intervention,” said Temer.
The meeting did, however, provide a preview of Trump’s remarks the next day at the United Nations General Assembly. Comparing his remarks immediately after his meeting on September 18 with his speech the following day reveals that, perhaps uncharacteristically for the U.S. leader, he stuck closely to prepared talking points on the issue (in both cases he began by railing against a “failed ideology” that has produced poverty or misery “everywhere it has been tried,” repeated that “the Venezuelan people are starving” and said his administration was prepared to take unspecified “further action”). The important difference, however, was Trump’s intended applause line (“The problem with Venezuela, is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented”), which got a cold reception from the General Assembly.
The speech was also notable for its strong affirmation of the notion of sovereignty and the importance of a world of strong nation-states. But this was followed by calls for international action on Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran, without any recognition of the contradiction or at least tension between these principles. As the New York Times pointed out, this is “a strikingly selective definition of sovereignty.”
Since then, the White House has worked to send the message that it is weighing even broader economic sanctions on Venezuela. On September 21, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters that a U.S. oil embargo was “not off the table,” and that “if things don’t improve, all those options are always there.”
These threats and Trump’s Cold War-inspired remarks were predictably seized upon by Venezuelan President Maduro and other figures in the Venezuelan government as evidence of a U.S.-led international conspiracy against the Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro, who sat out the General Assembly, responded to Trump’s speech by denouncing “aggression from the new Hitler of international politics, Mr. Donald Trump, against the people of Venezuela.” Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez also said that Trump’s remarks were an “attack” not just against Venezuela, but against “all the peoples of the world.” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza reacted by accusing Trump of trying to “govern the world.”
It is important to note that, unlike Trump’s previous threat of a military option—which forced Latin American and Caribbean countries to shift their criticism to the United States rather than focusing on Venezuela—this confrontational U.S. rhetoric did not dissuade the 12 countries that signed the Lima Declaration from meeting again. While a formal declaration was postponed out of respect for Mexico’s earthquake, representatives present told reporters that the group was “hopeful” at the prospect of formal dialogue between the opposition and government, so long as it produces concrete results.