By Carlos Alberto Montaner
The only American President who has succeeded with the strategy of bluffing was Ike Eisenhower (1953-1961) and he took the secret with him to the grave. He was the general who organized the greatest amphibious landing in history and supported the atomic bombing of Japan. Not believing him was an obvious form of madness. The enemies of the United States were persuaded that Eisenhower’s “military doctrine” consisted of resorting to total war, including nuclear war, should the nation be challenged. The American “services” carried out the task of spreading this information.
In any case, “speak softly and carry a big stick. You will go far.” The phrase is an African proverb and President Teddy Roosevelt used it frequently. Donald Trump does not believe in the proverb. He shouts. He threatens Chinese and North Korean enemies. He also does it with friends from Canada, the European Union or NATO.
But he does not carry a big stick. He does not resort to war. He prefers economic sanctions and to use the United States’ enormous financial weight – 22% of the global GDP and the dollar (the great planetary currency in which 80% of transactions are made) – to achieve his goals.
Fortunately, he did not mention again the stupidity of not paying the external debt and renegotiating it with the creditors. This is a strategy that works in the short term between companies that comply with bankruptcy rules, as Trump did several times, at the cost of his total loss of prestige as an entrepreneur, acquiring a reputation as a fierce and merciless negotiator, but it was a big mistake to use it to face the huge American public debt.
The United States’ financial strength lies in the seriousness with which it handles its commitments since the nation was founded in 1776. I don’t know if in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, a great business school where he obtained his diploma in economics, they taught him that (I suppose they did), but every nation is as strong as its institutions and its willingness to comply with its obligations, whether good or bad.
The bluff works in poker and in buying and selling negotiations, but it is a counterproductive tool in the international arena. When President Barack Obama said, in all seriousness, that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian population by the Assad dictatorship was a “red line” that could not be crossed, he made a great mistake. When he shrugged and did not respond with the “big stick”, the enemies became emboldened and the massacres intensified.
The same thing just happened in Venezuela during the Trump administration. After playing with the fantasy that “all options are on the table”, with no one less than Vice President Pence in charge, the Trump government acquired a very serious commitment. The word "all" included the military response, but when it became obvious that there wouldn’t be any shots, Maduro’s narco-dictatorship intensified the repression and decided to dismantle the National Assembly. They even dared to imprison Edgar Zambrano, First Vice President of the Assembly, in what seems to be a general rehearsal for the arrest of interim president Juan Guaidó.
Through its intelligence services, Washington has the required capacity and specific weight to win that kind of battle without the need to land a single soldier. It was much more sensible and productive to publicly warn that the United States would resort to an absolute economic boycott against the enemies and against the companies and countries that assisted them.
When the United States denies a visa to a specific individual, just observe what that means in Latin America. It is a kind of civil death, a scarlet letter tattooed with fire on the transgressors’ foreheads. If that sanction were extended by the European Union, the Latin American democracies and Canada, it would gain a lot of force, but this is not achieved by treating friendly countries as if they were adversaries.
No one is immune to those moral and practical sanctions. No individual or nation, although the criminals had taken over the country, as in Venezuela. Criminals need to move their capitals, acquire residences in habitable societies, be cured in First World hospitals. They want, like the Sicilian Mafiosi, that their children study in good universities and launder the ill-gotten fortunes within legitimate markets. Closing those roads to them is legitimate, but it must be done seriously, without letting a bit of oxygen pass by. Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. Born in 1943 in Cuba and exiled, Montaner is known for his more than 25 books and thousands of articles. PODER magazine estimates that more than six million readers have access to his weekly columns throughout Latin America. He is also a political analyst for CNN en Espanol. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named Montaner as one of the fifty most influential intellectuals in the Ibero-American world. His latest novel is A Time for Scoundrels. His latest essay is "The President: A Handbook for Voters and the Elected." His latest book is a review of Las raíces torcidas de América Latina (The Twisted Roots of Latin America), published by Planeta and available in Amazon, in printed or digital version.