Jan. 30, 2019 5:44 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—The Trump administration’s attempt to force out the president of Venezuela marked the opening of a new strategy to exert greater U.S. influence over Latin America, according to administration officials.
In sight isn’t just Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, but also Cuba, an antagonist that has dominated American attention in the region for more than 50 years, as well as recent inroads made by Russia, China and Iran.
While Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have long drawn Washington’s condemnation, the Trump administration is stocked with officials who have long believed Cuba to be the more serious national-security threat. They cite Cuba’s intelligence operations in the U.S., and its efforts to spread anti-American views in other Latin American countries.
The goal, the administration’s thinking goes, is to sever ties that bind Venezuela to Cuba and sink regimes in both countries.
The emerging U.S. assertiveness stems from the desire of the White House to reverse a partial rapprochement with Havana by the Obama administration through the easing of sanctions and the island’s opening to U.S. investment.
The Trump administration’s policy, developed over the past two years, has been driven in part by the ascent of Cuba critics including Mauricio Claver-Carone, a National Security Council official who had devoted much of his life to deposing Fidel Castro. The policy was shaped by the lobbying of elected officials such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who have a large number of constituents with connections to Venezuela.
Cuban intelligence is deeply integrated in the Venezuelan military and the security apparatus of the Maduro government. Venezuela, in turn, provides Havana with crude oil at virtually no cost, a volume that had once reached 100,000 barrels of oil a day. As each country has become more isolated, they have strengthened ties with Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
Continuity or Change
After Venezuela and Cuba, U.S. officials are eyeing Nicaragua. The State Department repeatedly warned of the country’s shift toward autocratic rule, government repression and violence. Nicaraguans are joining the flow of migrants toward the U.S. border with Mexico.
“The United States looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall: in Havana, in Caracas, in Managua,” the capital of Nicaragua, said John Bolton, national security adviser, in a November speech that unveiled the emerging strategy. He described the three countries as the “Troika of tyranny,” a phrase he coined, adding that the “Troika will crumble.”
On the same day, the administration unveiled new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, including on more than two dozen entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services and Venezuela’s gold sector.
The U.S. strategy carries major risks. If the administration’s support for opposition leader Juan Guaido in Venezuela fails to unseat Mr. Maduro, or if it fails to weaken ties between Caracas and Havana, the desperate conditions in Venezuela could worsen and tether the U.S. more closely with the crisis. An estimated three million Venezuelans have fled their country.
Failure also would hand both countries a David-and-Goliath diplomatic victory and potentially strengthen the hand of China, Moscow and Iran in the region. The chief reason President Obama pursued an entente with Cuba was his administration’s conclusion that decades of tough measures had failed to topple the Castro regime to make way for a democratic alternative.
It seems unlikely the U.S. will be able to bring along other countries in any anti-Cuba measures. Venezuela has been a pariah for many American allies, but some including Canada and France now have extensive business interests in Cuba.
One of the Trump administration’s first actions after the election was to dust off an unused plan from the Obama administration to sanction Tareck El Aissami, Mr. Maduro’s vice president.
U.S. law-enforcement officials say they have evidence Mr. Maduro directed state resources to create what they allege has become one of the most powerful international narco-trafficking operations in the world, and with links to Hezbollah, the Lebanese group designated by the U.S. as a terror organization.
Part of why U.S. officials express concern about Iran’s influence in the region is that Iran is a major backer of Hezbollah, and its South American operations are a significant source of cash.
Mr. El Aissami, who ran Venezuela’s passport operations during the Chavez regime, issued thousands of new names and passports to Lebanese and Iranians, including operatives, the U.S. officials said. He allegedly made a deal with a top Hezbollah agent that its operatives would run money-laundering operations for the narco-trafficking empire, two former senior U.S. law-enforcement officials said.
On the day Steven Mnuchin was sworn in as Treasury Secretary in February 2017, he imposed sanctions on Mr. El Aissami, citing the allegations involving narco-trafficking.
Among the first officials to lay out options for the Trump administration was Fernando Cutz, a career USAID foreign-service officer, who had previously worked on the rapprochement with Cuba for the Obama administration.
Mr. Cutz, now at the Cohen Group, said in an interview that President Trump asked for a Venezuela briefing on his second day in office to explore how to reverse Obama-era policies toward Cuba. Mr. Cutz laid out options to escalate pressure on the Maduro regime, including a financial strike at Venezuela’s oil exports. At first, the administration held back, fearing such an action would allow Mr. Maduro to blame the country’s woes on Washington.
Mr. Bolton, named national security adviser last year, has long taken a tough line on Cuba and Venezuela. He was later joined by Mr. Claver-Carone, who took over western hemispheric affairs at the National Security Council and shared Mr. Bolton’s view.
Mr. Claver-Carone, an adviser to the Trump campaign, rose to prominence in foreign-policy circles for running a blog called the Capitol Hill Cubans.
An archived edition of Capitol Hill Cubans described Mr. Claver-Carone as the co-founder and director of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a donation vehicle for House and Senate members. It was founded in 2003 “to promote an unconditional transition in Cuba to democracy, the rule of law and the free market.”
The PAC has raised and spent about $4.7 million since its inception. It contributed $20,000 to Mr. Rubio’s Senate campaign since June 2016 and gave Diaz-Balart’s campaign $5,000 in February 2018, records show.
Mr. Claver-Carone also led the nonprofit group Cuba Democracy Advocates from 2004 to 2017. And he ran a small lobbying firm called the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp for about 10 years, ending in 2016.
Months after Mr. Claver-Carone joined the Trump administration last summer, Mr. Bolton delivered his “troika of tyranny” speech.
The decision by two of Venezuela’s major opposition parties and past rivals—First Justice and Popular Will—to join forces a year ago provided for the first time a potential alternative to the Maduro regime. Mr. Guaido is a member of Popular Will. U.S. officials kept in close contact.
“This gave them credibility with the international community,” said Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuela expert and oil industry analyst at Rice University. “There was a great disdain for the opposition, but it lessened at least to the degree that the White House believed this bet is possible.”
The stage for action was set in an election last spring that more than 60 countries, including the U.S., dismissed as a sham, Mr. Maduro claimed victory. He extended his rule for six years in a swearing in a Jan. 10 ceremony.
The election last year of Colombian President Iván Duqueand Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new leader, also shifted the political landscape: Both are on Venezuela’s doorstep and struggling to cope with the country’s mass exodus.
In a trip over the New Year’s holidays, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Brazilian and Colombian counterparts, and he discussed a plan of action with Mr. Duque.
Mr. Maduro’s inauguration on January 10 set the wheels in motion in the Venezuelan National Assembly and at the White House, as officials seized on the momentum of street protests.
On Jan. 22, top administration officials, including Mr. Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Mr. Bolton and Mr. Mnuchin discussed options. Mr. Trump decided he was ready to support a regime change.
That night, Vice President Mike Pence called Mr. Guaido to express Washington’s willingness to back him. The next day, Mr. Guaido declared himself president and the U.S., along with Canada and most South American countries, officially recognized Mr. Guaido as the new leader of Venezuela.
“We’ve seen a real unity of purpose in the region in the last couple of weeks,” a senior Treasury official said. “It’s difficult to talk about Venezuela without also talking about Cuba.
The imposition of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil company, PdVSA, announced by the U.S. on Jan. 28, could be worth as much $11 billion in U.S. crude oil sales.
Among the next steps, U.S. officials said, are proposed new measures against Havana, such as restoring Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. That could hit financing and investments from countries outside the U.S. that now do business there, as well as the funds the country gets from international tourists.
Also on the list: new sanctions on Cuban officials and their networks and ending a waiver, known as Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, signed by every U.S. administration since its inception in 1996.
Ending the waiver would allow U.S. citizens to sue individuals and companies in U.S. courts for property seized by the Cuban government. Its impact would likely be to freeze billions of dollars worth of foreign investment in Cuba including hotels, golf courts and other projects.
The Trump administration is expected to announce new measures against Cuba in coming weeks, with the goal of crippling Havana’s ability to bolster the Maduro regime.
—José de Córdoba and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.
Jessica Donati at firstname.lastname@example.org, Vivian Salama at email@example.com and Ian Talley at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the January 31, 2019, print edition as 'Trump Sees Maduro Move As First Shot in Wider Battle.'