On Thursday, National Security Adviser John Bolton inaugurated the Trump administration’s version of the Bush-era “Axis of Evil” by singling out the three left-wing governments in Latin America–Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua–as the “Troika of Tyranny.”
Bolton—who also used the terms “the three stooges of socialism” and the “Triangle of Terror” to describe the three nations—delivered his comments to an audience of Venezuelan and Cuban opposition exiles at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida.
The speech—which by all indications signals a new, more aggressive approach towards left-leaning Latin American governments—comes less than a week before the midterm elections. This is notable, as Florida has been a major focus of the upcoming elections owing to its status as a swing state, prompting Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama to make recent appearances in support of their favored candidates.
Bolton’s speech seems to have been aimed, in part, at courting portions of Florida’s Hispanic community that favor a hardline approach to the governments that now form the newly minted “Troika of Tyranny.”
During the speech, Bolton firmly stated that the U.S. under President Trump would no longer appease the “dictators and despots” in Latin America, and blamed Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba for causing “immense” human suffering and provoking regional instability. “Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region,” Bolton noted.
Bolton also blamed the three nations for fostering a “cradle of communism” in the region, ignoring the fact that most of the targets of his ire are socialist, not communist. Bolton also rather ominously stated that the United States government “looks forward to watching” the governments of all three countries fall and that the “Troika will crumble.”
The aggressive speech was also used to announce new sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Venezuela’s gold industry. Venezuela has the second largest gold reserves in the world.
Michael McCarthy — the founder of Caracas Wire, a consulting group on Venezuela that regularly communicates with the Trump administration — told McClatchy that the administration’s newest sanctions would provide “strategic ambiguity” to target Venezuela’s oil sector in the near future. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves.
Bolton also hinted that the Trump administration would soon issue new sanctions against Nicaragua and Cuba, which has long been under an embargo imposed by the United States.
Notably, the same day as Bolton’s speech, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo of Cuba. Only Israel and the United States voted against the resolution, while only Moldova and Ukraine abstained.
Bolton’s bombastic rhetoric and the aggressive shift in the administration’s Latin America policy it has signaled, follow the recent and decisive win of the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro in the recent Brazilian elections. Bolsonaro vocally supports an increase in the U.S.’ regional presence. He has also long been a vocal supporter of Brazil’s military dictatorship and has promoted a return to several of the dictatorship’s past policies.
Bolsonaro’s victory was preceded by the inauguration of Colombia’s new right-wing president, Iván Duque, who in August succeeded his mentor Juan Manuel Santos, also of the right; as well as by the inauguration of conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera as president of Chile this past March. Piñera’s cabinet includes several politicians who served under the U.S.-installed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990.
Bolton alluded to the recent victories of pro-U.S. conservatives in his speech, stating that the Trump administration was pleased with the recent elections of “like-minded leaders” in Latin America. However, Bolton did not mention the left-leaning president-elect of Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador, who won the recent Mexican elections by a landslide. López Obrador has vowed to nationalize Mexico’s oil resources, a policy that had previously prompted U.S.-backed coups in other countries, such as Iran in 1953.
Bolton’s dream finally comes true with new “Axis of Evil” tailor-made for Cuba
Bolton’s declaration of the Trump administration’s plans to counter the “Troika of Tyranny” in Latin America is the logical conclusion of his appointment earlier this year to National Security Adviser, given that he has long targeted the three countries singled out in Thursday’s speech. Indeed, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton regularly criticized Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela as “undermining U.S. interests throughout the region.” However, it has long been Cuba that has been most aggressively targeted by Bolton. This may explain why Bolton, in his recent speech, singled Cuba out in particular and painted it as the leader of the so-called “Troika of Tyranny.”
Long an advocate for increasing the already strong restrictions against Cuba that were in place at the time, Bolton lobbied the George W. Bush administration in 2002 to add the island nation to its “axis of evil” while serving as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. The justification that Bolton offered was his claim that Cuba was covertly developing biological weapons. In a speech to the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, Bolton asserted that “Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.”
Bolton originally wrote the speech with a claim that Cuba had “a developmental offensive biological warfare program and is providing assistance to other rogue state programs.” To Bolton’s extreme displeasure, concern from other high-ranking officials in the State Department forced him to tone it down. Price Floyd, then a State Department media-affairs official, recalled that there had been “no evidence” for Bolton’s claim. Three years later, U.S. intelligence concluded that “it is unclear whether Cuba has an active offensive biological warfare effort now, or even had one in the past.”
After making the baseless accusation, Bolton tried to pressure intelligence officers and government analysts to endorse his statements, to little avail. Despite having distorted intelligence in service to his political bias, Bolton was subsequently promoted to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations soon after in 2005.
Notably, with Cuba holding a prominent position within Bolton’s “Troika of Tyranny,” it seems that the National Security Advisor has finally secured the country’s inclusion in the Trump administration’s “Axis of Evil,” more than a decade after having failed to convince the Bush administration to do the same.
Bolton’s new offensive very much in character
Venezuela has also long been the subject of Bolton’s ire. For instance, while serving in the Bush State Department in 2002, Bolton actively favored the failed U.S.-backed coup against then-President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez. Bolton has since claimed that Venezuela is harboring and collaborating with Iranian criminals and “smugglers.” During a 2013 hearing, Bolton claimed that Iran was operating in Venezuela to avoid international scrutiny:
These are expert smugglers with—the largest Iranian diplomatic facility in the world [which] is in Caracas, Venezuela […] they are laundering their money through the Venezuelan banks.
He has since asserted that Iran uses Venezuela “to retain access to the country’s extensive uranium reserves,” an apparent effort to link Venezuela to Iran’s nuclear power program. Bolton has long advocated for preemptive military action against Iran, with the country’s alleged ambition to develop nuclear weapons as the pretext.
Bolton has also claimed that the Lebanese political party Hezbollah is a “murky but continuing threat” in Venezuela. Claims of Hezbollah’s involvement are based solely on the ancestry of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who is of Lebanese heritage. Bolton has stated that Hezbollah’s alleged presence in Venezuela is the result of the presence of “expatriate Middle Eastern trading networks in Latin America”—essentially linking Hezbollah’s alleged presence to the presence of Lebanese immigrants, a bizarre association that comes close to conflating Lebanese heritage with Hezbollah membership. Bolton’s claims–for which he has never provided concrete evidence–have been backed by the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Bolton’s often aggressive efforts to undermine both Cuba and Venezuela have more recently manifested themselves in his disdain for the government of current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a country with which Bolton also has a troubled past. Indeed, during the Iran-Contra affair, when Ortega was leader of Nicaragua, Bolton, then serving as Assistant Attorney General under Edwin Meese, played a key role in hiding U.S. support for Nicaraguan death squads.
Bolton claimed that the information requested by the House Judiciary Committee in its investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal was “highly classified” and that no member of the committee had the “proper clearances” to review it. While serving in the Reagan administration, Bolton repeatedly blocked government probes into the U.S.’ role in Nicaragua by refusing to cooperate with document release requests and invoking executive privilege. He later referred to his efforts to destroy information allegedly pertaining to the Contra affair as “house cleaning” chores so the George H.W. Bush administration could come in with “a clean slate.”
Beyond his past efforts to target these three countries specifically, Bolton is also closely linked to a Washington law firm long known for its role in fomenting military coups throughout Latin America. For years, Bolton was an associate of Covington & Burling, which recently came under scrutiny for its role in the 2009 military coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. When Zelaya raised the minimum wage, Chiquita fruit company paid $70,000 in lobbying fees to Covington, whose long-time partner, Eric Holder, was serving as Attorney General at the time. Chiquita saw its lobbying pay off when the U.S.-backed military coup in 2009 removed Zelaya from power. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly admitted the role of the Obama administration in the coup.
Given Bolton’s past ambitions targeting these three countries and his connections to Covington & Burling, his recent rhetoric about the “triangle of terror” should be given the attention it deserves, as should his history of forcing the “facts” to fit his long-standing political biases.
Indeed, considering that the current vice president, president and secretary of state have all teased the possibility of regime change in Venezuela, including through a U.S.-backed military coup, it seems that Bolton’s new “Troika of Tyranny” speech will serve as the foundation for the next and more aggressive stage of the Trump administration’s Latin America policy.