Trump finally meets a ‘dictator’ he doesn’t like

Well, this is cute. The Trump White House condemned Venezuela as a “dictatorship” in the wake of the contested Constituent Assembly vote, and imposed sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro. The immediate pretext is the detention of opposition figures Leopoldo LĂłpez and Antonio Ledezma, who were transferred from house arrest to military prison, accused of leading protests in defiance of a nationwide ban. Trump said in a statement that the United States “condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship,” and holds Maduro “personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. LĂłpez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized.”

This is the same Donald Trump who days earlier, at a speech before police officers on Long Island, explicitly called for roughing up suspects. His sudden concern for the dignity of detainees in Venezuela is… curious.

There’s no point in kidding ourselves about the grim picture in Venezuela. The 545-member Constituent Assembly is being seated despite an investigation into charges of vote-tampering by the country’s own Fiscal General. Contracted tech firm Smartmatic says the official turn-out figure of 8.1 million votes was inflated by at least 1 million. Mexico, Colombia and Peru have joined Washington in not recognizing the results. (Reuters, Reuters; BBC News; Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC, The Hill, Jurist)

But this is a bizarre contradiction for Trump, who has rarely met a dictator he doesn’t like. How does his concern for democracy in Venezuela square with his fabled “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, or his budding one with the Philippines’ bloodthirsty Rodrigo Duterte? Trump has famously made a habit of praising despots and strongmen. After meeting at the White House with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is rapidly consolidating a dictatorship, Trump assured him that he was doing “a fantastic job.” Days later, he called to congratulate Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in a much-disputed referendum expanding his powers—yet another aspiring dictator well on his way to instating authoritarian rule, with White House blessing. Even as he threatens war with North Korea, Trump lauded the country’s absolute tyrant Kim Jong-un as a “smart cookie.”

You’d think this would be seen by progressives as ominous as shit, but there are some depraved and deluded voices on the Anglo-American “left” who are perversely heartened by it, taking it as a sign that Trump is an “isolationist” who will keep the US out of wars and “regime change” intrigues. Hopefully they will be disabused of their illusions now.

Joshua Keating attempts to make sense of this contradiction in Slate. He reminds us that  Trump said in his inaugural address that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” and told an eager audience in ultrareactionary Saudi Arabia this May, “We are not here to lecture.” Whence the sudden lecturing, then?

Keating takes a stab at it. He notes recent reports that the Trump administration has “effectively outsourced its Latin America policy” to Marco Rubio, who was also a leading advocate for rolling back the opening to Cuba.

It’s also possible Trump’s team just figures it has little to lose from keeping the Congressional Cuba Caucus happy by punishing a Venezuelan government that, in addition to democracy issues…is allied with Cuba and Iran. Given the importance of Maduro’s anti-Yankee bona fides to his appeal, he’s probably never going to be a US ally, and there’s little to gain from trying to win his favor. For a president who views foreign policy in purely zero-sum transactional terms, a friendship with Venezuela has little to offer…

There are risks, if the situation continues to escalate, though. One of the steps under consideration—and…being pushed by Rubio—is sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry… This would be a substantial escalation beyond targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials and would likely have a devastating impact on the country’s already teetering economy. The Maduro government will continue to blame Yankee imperialism for Venezuela’s unrest no matter what happens, but its case will be strengthened—and the opposition’s weakened—if US policies are hurting ordinary Venezuelans…

Another factor, of perhaps greater importance to Trump, is that despite all the tensions, Venezuela accounts for 10 percent of US oil imports. A trade embargo could raise gas prices for Americans, a risk that Trump must be very loath to accept. So far, the strong US response to Venezuela’s crisis, while out of step with his foreign policy, has been a low-risk way for the Trump administration to please some key constituencies and punish an anti-American government. But there are probably limits to how far Trump is willing to take that gamble.

So, like Kim Jong-un, Maduro is probably too useful to Trump as an external demon to be invited to join his fascist world order. But you never know. Don’t forget “socialist” Venezuela’s bizarre donation of $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration festivities—obviously a quiet overture by Maduro to the incoming administration.

There have been a few real signs of hope for resistance to this fascist world order—victories for popular movements against power-grabs by aspiring despots. But what are we to make of Venezuela, where a dictatorship really does seem to be consolidating—but in the name of “socialism” and “revolution,” allowing the political right to corner the opposition?

It has certainly been sickening to see stateside “leftists” avidly cheering on a president who is banning protests. Regardless of the reactionary leadership, the Venezuelan protest movement is now far too big to be dismissed as CIA astroturf. And even if we accept claims about the bourgeois make-up of the demonstrations, setting this precedent is making a noose for the neck of Venezuela’s working class.

We again urge loaning a voice to Venezuela’s marginal but now growing independent left that rejects both Maduro’s power-grab and efforts by the right-opposition and imperialism to exploit the crisis.