- - Sunday, January 27, 2019

Once upon a time and not so long ago Venezuela was the most prosperous nation in South America. When the late Hugo Chavez took over as maximum leader, he put it on the road to socialist hell. Under his successor, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela got there.

President Donald Trump took a dramatic step last week to help put things right. There’s much to do. Taking note of Chavez-Maduro corruption the president said the United States now recognizes as president Juan Guaido, the speaker of the National Assembly who swore himself in as the Maduro successor.

This is a positive development, entirely consistent with Mr. Trump’s policy of “principled realism.” Canada soon followed and other South American governments are likely to follow, too. Mr. Maduro’s fraud-tainted re-election led to mass protests, drawing attention from its closest neighbors. The leftists in Bolivia are standing by the Maduro regime but Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is making happy noises. Together these two countries, which are regional economic powerhouses as well as stable democracies, can show Venezuela the right example.

Certain American liberals want to preserve the status quo, calling for sanctions and cutting off Venezuelan access to U.S. markets. They argue that continuing U.S.-Venezuelan economic ties empowers an illegitimate government. But the American economic presence is all that stands between the Venezuelan people and descent into what Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature,” which is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

The alternative available to a Maduro regime would be a economic alliance with Russia, Cuba, China, Iran or some combination of the four, none of which would be good for either America or Venezuela. The Russians and Chinese have been moving into Central and South America for decades while the United States has been distracted by events half a world away. While we’ve been tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria the Chinese are putting Latin American nations in their debt and the Russians are seeking military alliances throughout the region. Foreign Policy magazine reported in November that “Over the past several years, China has managed to turn itself into Latin America’s largest creditor, mostly by funding large-scale infrastructure projects. In doing so, Beijing has managed to grow quite close to some of the region’s capitals. Argentine President Mauricio Macri has sought to ‘deepen’ ties with China. In Colombia, President Ivn Duque hosted Chinese Transport Minister Li Xiaoping as an honored guest at his inauguration ceremony over the summer. And the incoming Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is considering joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which he has said will open a new chapter in the countries’ relations.”

The evidence is clear that both Russia and China are targeting Latin America as prospective military allies. Foreign Policy reported on Nov. 19, 2018, “U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, returning from a trip to Colombia, said the Trump administration is making a push to strengthen alliances across Latin America as part of an effort to counter rising Chinese and Russian influence in the United States’ backyard.”

The United States’ response to these developments can’t be economic and political isolation. Engagement, driven by the private sector accompanied by stronger military ties throughout the region is the only response.

Venezuela is rich in oil and other natural resources, which makes oil an important factor in keeping order in the continent. Erepla, an American company that recently worked out a deal to produce oil at three facilities in Venezuela in exchange for profits that, as Bloomberg reported, will “boost production at the Tia Juana and Rosa Mediano and Ayacucho 5 fields.”

Good for us. Just as importantly, good for them. The deal would pay good wages even if there’s little to buy now in the shops. Before it can go through, the Office of Foreign Asset Control in the U.S. Department of Treasury must approve the deal. It should do that promptly because it’s just this kind of economic engagement that is consistent with leading by example, a key part of the Trump doctrine. This would push Venezuela away from socialism and the embrace of America’s global economic and military rivals.

Venezuela has some of the largest known oil reserves in the world. It’s a crucial source of crude in the global markets and the U.S. refining complex. Enabling U.S. companies to work within and with what’s left of the Venezuelan energy sector after the Maduro ruin is both dollar diplomacy and a good neighbor policy. When Mr. Maduro is gone, someone will have to pick up the pieces and help rebuild Venezuela’s national economy. Keeping the Russians and the Chinese out will be a good day’s work.

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