US Cuba Rapprochement Raises Questions about Venezuela

David Smilde, Geoff Thale and Timothy M. Gill

Reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US raises questions about the future of Venezuela’s relations with its best friend and favorite enemy. That this rapprochement occurred a day before President Barrack Obama signed targeted sanctions against US officials further thickens the plot.

Over the past sixteen years, Presidents Chávez and now Maduro have prioritized relations with Cuba and provided the government with subsidized oil and other assistance – sometimes in exchange for Cuban medical personnel and other times as a gesture of goodwill. Indeed many have assumed that one reason Chávez selected Maduro as his successor was his good relationship to the Cuban government. As president, Maduro has made no secret of the fact he also feels a special kinship with the Cuban government, as he has frequently met with Cuban leaders. The two governments recently announced 62 joint social and economic development projects for 2015.

But Cuba has long been wary of over-reliance on Venezuela. The experience of over-reliance on the Soviet Union was a painful lesson, one Cuban officials and advisors have always been concerned not to repeat. Venezuelan support clearly helped lift the Cuban economy in the early part of the new century, and Fidel in particular (more than Raúl) was excited by the possibility of the construction of the ALBA alliance as a regional counterweight to the United States. The Cuban government has been eager to do what they can to help ensure that Maduro stays in power, because the assistance matters a lot to them, but they have wanted to avoid putting all their eggs in that basket.

 

As the sustainability of the Venezuelan economy and Chavista political coalition has come into question over the past two years, Cuba has been searching for other potential partners with whom it could make barter arrangements, trading oil for medical and other services. No other single country can replace Venezuela and its aid, but Cuba has been interested in diversifying,

The huge Brazilian investment in the port of Mariel  – exceeding $800 million  – has been in the works for several years, and the port’s success is ultimately tied to normal US-Cuban shipping relations. This suggests that the Cubans and their Brazilian partners have had better relations with the U.S. in mind for some time.

The natural question about last weeks announcements is whether the Venezuelan government knew about US-Cuba negotiations. Several analysts have suggested that Venezuela appeared to be caught off guard (See James Bosworth here and Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez here). Indeed the Wednesday announcements by Obama and Castro closely followed a week of boisterous anti-US statements from the Maduro government and even an anti-imperialist march in Caracas. Just two days after suggesting that Venezuelans burn their US visas, Maduro found himself commending Obama for his historic gesture.

However, from the outside, there is no obvious reason the Cuban government would keep negotiations with the US secret from the Maduro government. Cuba is reestablishing diplomatic relations with the US – something Venezuela already has. The two countries aim to exchange ambassadors – something the US and Venezuela have said they want to do for years. Cuba-US rapprochement could lead to a lifting of the US embargo against Cuba – the Venezuelan government has always voiced opposition to the embargo. Inside information could eventually reveal some sort of political intrigue or betrayal; but on the surface there is no reason to suspect it, since only the US changed its positions.

Instead the timing of the announcements seems to have been an artful, multiple triangulation on the part of the Obama administration, making significant moves while complicating the responses of opponents. On the one hand, rapprochement with Cuba exposed Obama to the criticism of anti-Castro legislators in the Congress who predictably portrayed him as “soft on dictators.” However, signing these same legislators’ bill for targeted sanctions on Venezuela the very next day sapped strength from their position. On the other hand, the same move complicates the Maduro government’s response to US sanctions. US hostility to Cuba has long put it at odds with the region and progress on this count changes the context of growing US tensions with the Venezuelan government.

Suggestions that US-Cuban rapprochement “totally marginalizes Maduro and his government” seem overstated. Raúl Castro stated that he rejects the US attempt to impose sanctions on the “brother nation” of Venezuela and that Cuba will continue to provide Venezuela with help against such “destabilizing measures.” Mercosur and other regional allies have also spoken out against US sanctions. But without a doubt the rapprochement reduces the resonance of Venezuela’s anti-imperialist discourse both at home and in the region.