“For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:14
National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a speech in Miami in early November in which he labeled the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as Latin America’s “Troika of Tyranny.” This statement is not particularly shocking as the Trump administration has routinely criticized all three governments. Tense relations with Managua and Caracas are to be expected, but utilizing this label for Havana exemplifies the Trump White House’s freeze of the Washington-Havana rapprochement that started during the Obama presidency.
The question that emerges now is: does Bolton’s speech signal a drastic change in US foreign policy toward Latin America? Or can we expect more of the same?
The Miami Speech
Bolton gave his speech at the Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower on November 1, during which he labeled the three aforementioned states as the “troika of tyranny” of the Western Hemisphere. Followers of international affairs will make parallels between this label and the “axis of evil” term President George W. Bush utilized during his 2002 State of the Union address to describe the governments of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
The national security advisor stated that “this Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” He added that “we will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores.”
As for country-specific remarks, when it comes to Venezuela Bolton demanded that the regime release political prisoners, and he called for new elections. The US official also supported new sanctions against the government, arguing that “the United States is acting against the dictator Maduro, who uses the same repressive tactics that have been employed in Cuba for decades.”
Regarding Nicaragua, the country became an international pariah due to repressive measures the Daniel Ortega administration carried out after major protests exploded in April. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Bolton demanded elections, or “the Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”
Finally, Washington aims to minimize contacts with the Cuban regime and “will only engage with the Cuban government that is willing to undertake necessary and tangible reforms.” Even more, Vox reported the US won’t allow American cash to reach Cuba’s military, security, or intelligence services.
What Is the Significance of Bolton’s Speech?
There are a number of issues worth mentioning regarding Bolton’s speech. The most important is that Bolton stopped short of openly advocating for some type of US intervention in Venezuela. As the Miami Herald reports, “Bolton said in response to questions after the speech that he doesn’t expect the US military would intervene in Venezuela. ‘I don’t see that happening,’ he said.” US politicians at all levels regularly attack the Nicolás Maduro regime and call for drastic changes. For example, on February 9 Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator.” Hence, Bolton’s statements are not surprising. Nevertheless, it is unclear how effective additional sanctions would be given that the Maduro regime is firmly entrenched. The restraint on talking about military intervention exemplifies how undecided Washington is about how far it is willing to go to get rid of Maduro.
As for Nicaragua, the hundreds of dead civilians, with even more injured and arrested, have made the Ortega regime an international pariah. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Bolton critiqued Managua as well. Sanctions or further diplomatic pressure on Nicaragua is a valid strategy, and at one point back in June, President Ortega did flirt with the idea of calling for early elections in order to appease protesters. Nevertheless, the Nicaraguan government seems to be back in control of the country as the protests have dissipated due to the Managua’s repressive tactics. The anti-Ortega sentiment remains strong in Managua and in Washington, but it is debatable how effective sanctions would be (particularly given the fact that they have been ineffective in toppling the Maduro regime in Venezuela).
Bolton’s comments about Cuba are also noteworthy because they effectively put an end to whatever attempt at a rapprochement had commenced during the Obama presidency. Embassies in both countries reopened in 2015, and then-President Obama even met with then-President Raul Castro in 2016. But when President Trump came to power, he made it clear very quickly that he was not interested in continuing to improve bilateral ties. The mysterious attacks in 2017 that sickened US diplomas in Cuba were the perfect reason for the Trump White House to switch to a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Cuba. Shortly after this event, The US expelled a total of 15 Cuban diplomats. If there was any hope that dialogue between the two governments could commence once again, Bolton’s speech effectively ended it.
Will Bolton’s speech have some long-term repercussions? The remarks were inflammatory and included plenty of quotable phrases and statements, but it did not represent a change of US foreign policy objectives. New sanctions are only to be expected regarding Nicaragua and Venezuela; as for Cuba, improved bilateral relations seem utopian once again.
The 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech will be forever linked to the US invasion of Iraq that took place a year later. How will the “Troika of Tyranny” remark be remembered a year from now?
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of John Bolton delivering his “Troika of Tyranny” speech on November 1, 2018, in Miami. By WPLG.