Biden’s weakness is bringing war to South America

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The Essequibo crisis is further evidence, if the world needed it, of why dethroning Nicolas Maduro is desirable

Is war about to erupt in South America? Last week, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro took provocative steps toward forcibly annexing Essequibo, a region comprising almost three-quarters of neighbouring Guyana. “Experts” promptly downplayed the possibility of hostilities, but they may have spoken too soon.

Maduro’s pretext is a 19th-century dispute, once thought resolved, but periodically reopened by Venezuela. The real spark, however, is his regime’s ongoing collapse, financially crippled by decades of mismanaging Venezuela’s vast oil reserves; massive regime corruption; and repression of domestic political opposition. If Guyana’s huge offshore oil deposits, discovered in 2015, continue to be developed, Venezuela’s chance to rejuvenate its own oil industry drops to near-zero. Why deal with a failed state when Guyana, eager for foreign investment, offers a seemingly uncomplicated alternative?

Joe Biden’s 2024 electoral vulnerability is also key here. Just months ago, Maduro suckered Biden into lifting economic sanctions imposed after Maduro stole Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election. Desperate to lower US petrol prices, Biden effectively betrayed Venezuela’s democratic opposition. Maduro’s promise to hold free and fair elections lasted just weeks, disappearing once sanctions were removed, proving that only mad dogs and the Biden administration negotiate with him.

Biden’s fear that international crises will raise oil prices, and the perception that the Ukraine and Middle East wars are overwhelming Washington’s bandwidth, reinforce Maduro’s conclusion that now may be an ideal moment to strike. Inadequate US responses so far underscore the absence of a deterrent sufficient to dissuade even Venezuela’s dilapidated military from using force against much-smaller Guyana.

Ironically, Washington had a key role in the 1899 arbitration award Caracas now rejects. Faced with a boundary dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela, the US advocated arbitrating the competing claims.

Secretary of State Richard Olney cited the Monroe Doctrine, brushing back UK imperial ambitions: “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” Although British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain bridled at the Monroe Doctrine’s invocation, he agreed to arbitrate, declaring Britain and America were “more closely aligned in sentiment and in interest than any other nations on the face of the earth.”

During the ensuing proceedings, two US Supreme Court justices served as arbitrators, in effect representing Venezuela’s claims. The 1899 award should have ended the controversy, but Caracas has repeatedly rejected it, not seeing the Monroe Doctrine so benignly later. The Organization of American States, however, supports the award to this day.

The current Essequibo crisis did not arise overnight. As the extent of Guyana’s offshore oil resources became apparent, Venezuela’s worries grew, and provocations began. In 2018, Venezuelan navy vessels sought to land a military helicopter on one of three Exxon-chartered oil-exploration ships, contending they were in Venezuelan waters. The vessels, in fact in Guyanese waters, moved away from the sea border, effectively ending the incident, but Venezuela’s hostile intent was clear.

To bolster his current threats, Maduro staged a December 3 “referendum”, which endorsed annexing Essequibo. This vote was as rigged, and the outcome as predetermined, as every Venezuelan election in the past 20-plus years.

Maduro ordered the arrest of opposition figures immediately thereafter, and took further steps to advance his territorial claims, such as mobilising the army. He does not need to conquer all of Essequibo to achieve his objectives. Simply seizing key coastal territories could buttress Caracas’s claims to the offshore oil deposits, while occupying inland areas could give it control of extensive deposits of gold, copper, other minerals and possibly hydrocarbons. In either case, military action would intensify the crisis, and enhance Maduro’s bargaining position.

But the Essequibo crisis also poses risks to Maduro, and further evidence, if the world needed it, of why dethroning him is desirable. His opponents should use Maduro’s belligerent behaviour to generate additional pressure on his government, domestically and internationally, thereby opening new possibilities for Venezuela’s citizens then to do the rest.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on December 13, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.

Biden’s foolish reward for Venezuela

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Venezuela today vividly represents the collapse of effective American foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. Receiving unfortunately little attention, President Joe Biden’s misguided, dangerous efforts to lift economic sanctions against this oppressive regime will undermine Venezuela’s democratic opposition and entrench the criminal syndicate now in power.

The United States and a solid phalanx of Latin American and European countries issued sanctions, particularly on the international sale of petroleum and related products, following Nicolas Maduro’s successful effort to steal Venezuela’s 2018 presidential elections and many other measures to suppress dissent. As foreshadowed by earlier Biden attempts to negotiate a deal, any deal, with Caracas, the White House is now effectively abandoning even the pretense of supporting the opposition coalition and toppling the heirs of Hugo Chavez.

This article was first published in The Washington Examiner on October 31, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

America can’t permit Chinese military expansion in Cuba

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This article was first published in The Hill on July 1, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Important historical events often get lost in the daily shuffle. Only last week, news of China building a “military training” facility in Cuba came just a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s brief June 19 meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which was touted as having stabilized Washington-Beijing relations.

Then President Biden weighed in, opining that Xi had been unaware of Beijing’s spy balloon over the United States, which reflected “a great embarrassment for dictators: when they didn’t know what happened.”

China answered angrily that Biden’s remarks were “extremely absurd and irresponsible”; sent in its Washington ambassador to protest; and read America’s ambassador in Beijing the riot act. Biden himself then said, modestly, that his comments hadn’t had “any real consequence.” Just another episode of Biden inadvertently speaking the truth (although what Xi really knew about the balloon remains unclear).

Of course, an attempted paramilitary coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin is an attention-grabber on any day, but when it comes to China, planning a military facility on Cuba’s north coast is far more important than rhetorical exchanges and uneventful diplomatic visits.

Even before Russia’s drama erupted, coverage of China’s “training” base all but disappeared, lost beneath the most recent example of Biden musings contradicting declared U.S. policy. Originally published by the Wall Street Journal, the “military training” story followed its reporting on China opening a new espionage center in Cuba.

The Biden administration initially denied that story, but then reversed itself, saying the spying base emerged under Donald Trump, likely supported by Huawei and ZTE.

The potential of significant Chinese facilities in Cuba is a red-flag threat to America. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Washington relied on an “implicit understanding” (in Henry Kissinger’s words) with Moscow to reduce threats emanating from Cuba. Under this understanding, the USSR agreed not to place new offensive weapons or delivery systems in Cuba, and the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba. Although severely tested by Soviet efforts to build a submarine base at Cienfuegos in 1970, the understanding has held. Moreover, in 2002, Russia closed its Lourdes intelligence base, greatly restricting its Cuban collection capabilities.

Between China and America, however, no such modus operandi has ever existed. Beijing made no commitment comparable to Moscow. Moreover, “military training” could well camouflage offensive weapons, delivery systems or other threatening capabilities.

For example, hypersonic cruise missiles, already harder to detect, track, and destroy than ballistic missiles, are natural candidates for installation in Cuba, a prospect we cannot tolerate, along with many other risks, like a Chinese submarine base. Beijing’s interests in Venezuela’s oil-and-gas assets, its support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship, and its extensive mineral and other investments throughout Latin America could help make Cuba the center for China’s activities across the Hemisphere.

Beijing plainly deals with Havana as though it has no inhibitions. Neither should we. America should move immediately to thwart China’s intrusive ambitions. Revoking diplomatic relations with Cuba; increased economic sanctions against both China and Cuba; and far stricter implementation of existing sanctions, are required now. Although these steps have previously failed to overthrow Castro or his successors, prior measures were never backed, post-1962, by the possibility of using American force against the regime, assuming Moscow adhered to the “implicit understanding.” Moreover, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion spooked U.S. officials, thereby ending significant planning for Cuban exile participation in regime-change efforts.

That was then. China’s intrusion into Cuba reflects a significant escalation in its hegemonic aspirations, equal to or graver than the 1960s Soviet presence. One thing is certain: We should not stand idly by. Had Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy acted more forcefully and effectively against Castro, we might have avoided many perilous Cold War crises, sparing us decades of strategic concern, not to mention the repression of Cuba’s people.

As evidence grows that China is prepared to take full advantage of Cuba’s geographic proximity to America, we need to think again about whether and how to overthrow Havana’s post-Castro regime. With Beijing’s threat rising, we should not miss today’s moment without seriously reconsidering how to return this geographically critical island to its own people’s friendlier hands.

Both Havana and Beijing need to understand, without qualification, that they have no license to engage in behavior threatening the United States. We are bound by no commitment limiting our use of force. Just as Nixon properly blocked the Soviets at Cienfuegos, we should examine how to block construction of Chinese military facilities. Guantanamo Bay, for example, was never prepared as a staging ground for anti-Castro activities but remains fully available to us today.

Verbal sparring between Beijing and Washington, or even ominous developments in Russia, should not distract us from critical opportunities to preclude a rising Chinese threat centered in Cuba. If Biden won’t act, Republican candidates in 2024 should make China’s looming Cuba presence a major campaign issue.

Pay attention to Latin America and Africa before controversies erupt

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This article appeared in The Hill on January 2, 2018. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
January 2, 2018

Latin America and Africa have rarely rated as top U.S. foreign policy priorities in recent years, but 2018 may change that. Political instability and the collapse of national governments, international terrorism and its associated financing, and great power competition for natural resources and political influence could all threaten significant American national security interests next year. If several simmering controversies erupt simultaneously, Washington could find itself facing these crises with little or no strategic thinking to guide our responses.

In the Western Hemisphere, Cuba as of now is scheduled on April 19 to see the end of official leadership by the Castro brothers. Since seizing power from Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel and Raul have embodied global revolutionary Marxism, defying U.S. opposition and repressing domestic dissent without compunction. But while loath to admit it, the Castros were always sustained by external assistance, by the Soviet Union until its 1991 collapse in turn prompted a near-terminal regime crisis in Cuba, and more recently by Venezuela’s dictatorship.

Moreover, despite Barack Obama’s revealingly ideological effort to extend a lifeline by granting the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, economic conditions did not improve and domestic political repression only intensified. Even beyond Cuba’s open contempt for Obama’s concessions, however, 2017’s still unexplained sonic attacks on American diplomatic personnel crossed the line. Denied by Havana but hard to imagine without its connivance, these attacks concentrated the new Trump administration’s attention. In November, the White House rolled back many of Obama’s changes, serving notice that harming Americans was unacceptable.

Now, with Venezuela on the ropes, the revolutionary legitimacy of the Castros set to disappear, and U.S. pressure increasing, how long the regime survives is an open question. Whoever follows Raul Castro may well be Cuba’s version of Egon Krenz, East Germany’s last Communist ruler after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

One major unknown is whether Vladimir Putin will see a strategic opportunity to reassert Russian influence in the failed Marxist paradise, or in other hemispheric weak points. Both Nicaragua (where, incredibly, the Sandinistas remain in power) and Honduras (which President Trump is trying to rescue from misguided Obama policies) are possibilities. While tensions will not likely return to Cold War levels, when U.S.-Soviet crisis over Cuba came close to igniting nuclear war, Russian meddling in Latin America could inspire Trump to reassert the Monroe Doctrine (another casualty of the Obama years) and stand up for Cuba’s beleaguered people (as he is now for Iran’s).

Venezuela’s tragic decline, first under Hugo Chavez’s comic-opera regime and now under Nicolas Maduro, his dimwitted successor, accelerated in 2017. A country that once had near-European living standards has seen its petroleum industry collapse through corruption, criminal negligence and lack of investment, with devastating consequences.

Moreover, foreign penetration of Venezuela remains unprecedented. Maduro relies on Cuban military advisers, and Iran and others maneuver to retain access to the country’s extensive uranium reserves, using its banking system for extensive money laundering and other illicit transactions. Hezbollah, exploiting the long history of expatriate Middle Eastern trading networks in Latin America, remains a murky but continuing threat, and narcotics empires are taking advantage of the rising chaos to operate in both Columbia and Venezuela.

Fortunately, at least some countries, like Argentina and Chile, show signs of restabilizing and overcoming misguided economic policies. On the other hand, as Brazilians themselves say, “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” While Washington continues debating Mexican border policy, broader hemispheric threats, essentially ignored during the Obama administration, continue to grow, as 2018 may prove to our dismay.

Africa, in 2017 and before, has been ravaged by spreading anarchy and Islamic terrorism. Somalia effectively disintegrated decades ago, southern Sudan’s bloody civil war continues (and Sudan’s Darfur massacres remain etched in our memory), Boko Haram has torn open the seam between Muslims in the Saharan and Christians and animists in sub-Saharan Africa, and destabilizing terrorists or warlord groups, often armed by collaborating with similar groups in the collapsed state of Libya, have rampaged across the continent. Of these, Boko Haram’s threat to Nigeria’s stability and unity is the most significant, especially given Nigeria’s substantial oil reserves.

While the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq was essentially destroyed in 2017, its leaders had exfiltrated over time, escaping to Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Throughout northern Africa, therefore, ISIS and other terrorists could well become more visible next year as weak governments come under increased threat. France, for example, saved Mali from likely terrorist takeover in 2013, and more such threats could now emerge. Africom, the newest U.S. combatant command, faces its most extensive challenges and considerable attention to its counterterrorism efforts.

More broadly, Kenya saw internal political discord and external interference in 2017 that all but shattered confidence in national institutions. Similarly, South Africa’s African National Congress, which brought the country to independence and ruled it thereafter, nearly disintegrated in a just-concluded leadership contest to succeed President Jacob Zuma as the party’s head. On the other hand, successful elections in Liberia to succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf mean that, for the first time in that nation’s history, there could be a peaceful transformation from one democratically elected leader to another. Moreover, Robert Mugabe’s fall in Zimbabwe was good news, although there is no guarantee the country will escape from his autocratic regime.

In both Latin America and Africa, China’s presence has grown significantly in recent decades, often through substantial foreign aid infrastructure projects or investments in natural resources, designed to feed China’s industrial production demands. Beijing’s competition with Washington has been largely one-sided, since we have long had wholly inadequate strategic understanding of the implications of China’s incursions, and no coherent response. Russia has been less involved in the race for natural resources, but its increased visibility, especially in our hemisphere, are part and parcel of Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia’s presence as in Cold War days.

In both of these critical regions, we need greater U.S. involvement, hopefully guided by more comprehensive thinking rather than ad hoc responses to erupting crises. This same advice could have been given for decades. Whether it will change in 2018 remains to be seen.