Trump's Putin Petting Sends Terrible Signal Before Latin America's Elections

Mar 21, 2018

COMMENTARY

When Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died two years ago, then U.S. President Barack Obama issued a lame response: “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

Mister Rogers would have offered a tougher assessment of Castro, a communist caudillo whose repressive revolution has ruled Cuba for 59 years. When Obama’s statement reached Havana, you could hear regime apparatchiks high-fiving each other all over the island.

And beyond. Obama was right to normalize relations with Cuba. But his kid-glove Castro obit was a soft slap on the iron wrists of authoritarian leaders across Latin America, from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on the left to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on the right.

READ MORE: China and Russia Don't Need 'Sharp Power' in Latin America. They've Got Donald Trump.

So it’s a damn good thing the U.S. finally has someone in the White House who’s tough on autocrats. Someone who, when a despot wins re-election in a farcical presidential election just days after his henchmen allegedly poison adversaries, calls that leader and tells him…

“Congratulations, Vladimir!”

Oh, shoot. My bad. Turns out we don’t have that kind of guy in the White House.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he’d phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and “congratulated him on his electoral victory,” which is a pretty kind way of describing how Putin scored another six years in the Kremlin.

By endorsing Putin's 'election' model, Trump has lifted the dictatorial spirits of Latin American despots like Maduro who've adopted that model.

Putin’s March 18 “electoral victory” involved arresting his most serious challenger, letting voters see little else but Putin campaign advertising on Putin-run state media – and stuffing ballot boxes. And it came right after a nerve-agent attack in England on a former Russian spy-turned-double agent and his daughter – a crime that Britain, France, Germany and even the U.S. blame on Putin’s government. (Putin denies it.)

Arizona Senator John McCain echoed the general astonishment when he reminded Trump this week that an “American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”

But Donald’s got a soft spot for bullies like himself. And his Putin petting sends the worst possible signal to our hemisphere – where in Latin America this year there are several presidential elections that could have a big impact on whether the region keeps reaching for democracy or starts sliding away from it.

TARNISHED STREET CRED

First up, coincidentally, is Cuba, on April 19. For the first time in six decades the new president won’t be a Castro, since current President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor, isn’t running for re-election. That doesn’t mean Cuba will morph into a capitalist democracy on April 20. But it does mark an important transitional moment when the U.S. would want to make its commitment to democratic values look unequivocal.

Instead, if I were Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel – who’s most likely to be elected President – I’d be waiting for the White House to ring me up too. Either way, after this week I certainly wouldn’t be taking Trump, and by extension America, all that seriously when they demand more democratization in Cuba – especially since Putin is one of Cuba’s most important allies.

RIGGED VOTE? Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro smiles after voting in his socialist party's primary election in 2015.
Credit Ariana Cubillos / AP via Miami Herald

He’s just as big a buddy to Venezuela, which is holding its own rigged presidential vote on May 20 amid the worst economic collapse in the world today. There, Maduro too has made sure his strongest rivals are either disqualified or jailed; that the electoral council is stacked with lackeys from his socialist party; that the media playing field is tilted impossibly in his favor.

In other words, the Putin model. Trump’s endorsement of that model means the U.S. isn’t exactly democracy’s standard-bearer in the Americas right now – precisely when it’s trying to muster support in the region for stronger sanctions against Maduro’s regime.

Trump already tarnished the U.S.’s hemispheric street cred last year when he gave the thumbs up to Hernández’s highly suspect re-election victory in Honduras. A big fear is that this year he may lift authoritarian spirits in elections in Latin America’s two biggest countries: Brazil – where a right-wing populist, Jair Bolsonaro, may win – and Mexico – where a left-wing populist, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will probably win.

Part of Putin's mission to undermine the U.S. is to undermine Latin America's fledgling democracies. It would be another "electoral victory" Trump can congratulate him for.