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Most people think that the U.S. diplomatic and economic full-court press of President Nicolás Maduro is all about Venezuela and its Bolivarian revolution. It’s not. At its core, it has more to do with compelling regime change in Havana.
When Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro visited Washington in March, U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to single out both Venezuela and Cuba for harsh criticism. “We call on members of the Venezuelan military to end their support for Maduro, who is really nothing more than a Cuban puppet,” he said sharply. “The United States and Brazil,” Trump intoned, “are also united in support of the long-suffering people of Cuba and Nicaragua … it is the twilight of socialism in the region.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was even more pointed in his recent comments: “No nation has done more to sustain the death and daily misery of ordinary Venezuelans, including Venezuela’s military and their families, than the communists in Havana.” He then went on to add: “The Cuban government of Miguel Diaz-Canel provides political cover for Maduro and his henchmen so that they stay in power. It’s Cuba that has offered Maduro its unwavering solidarity.”
Hardline U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has also been a key driver of U.S. efforts to crush the Cuban government. (This is the same senior U.S. official who falsely accused Cuba of developing an offensive biological warfare program in 2002.) According to a toughly-worded November speech in Miami about a “Troika of Tyranny” in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, he didn’t mince his words: “The United States looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall: in Havana, in Caracas, in Managua.”
Clearly, the Trump administration has returned to a Cold War mentality when it comes to Cuba, adopting an irrational policy of isolation, condemnation, hostility and punishment. Indeed, the overarching objectives are right out of the 1980s – destabilize the Cuban government, undermine what’s left of the Cuban revolution and send a powerful message to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean not to follow in Cuba’s footsteps.
Accordingly, the Trump White House has reduced U.S. embassy staff in Havana (and kicked out Cuban diplomats in Washington), curtailed consular services, issued a travel warning for Cuba and tightened the U.S. economic embargo to halt American citizens from spending money on any aspect of Cuban tourism controlled by the country’s armed forces. It has invoked the Title III provisions of the anti-Cuba Helms-Burton Law to permit U.S. citizens to sue Cuban companies for damages in federal courts for trafficking in alleged stolen property (which is primarily designed to discourage foreign direct investment in the island).
Most recently, Washington moved to eliminate the five-year entry visa for Cubans (which allowed them multiple visits) to a three-month visa now only good for one visit. President Trump is also seriously considering putting Cuba back on the U.S. State Department list of countries that support international terrorism.
One critical way of toppling the Cuban government – at least in the eyes of people like Pompeo, Bolton and special envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams – is by severing the Venezuela-Cuba relationship. It is worth emphasizing that Venezuela has been Cuba’s top commercial partner (until China recently took over that position) at $2.2 billion in annual two-way trade and a key supplier of oil (roughly 115,000 barrels per day at its peak) to the island nation.
So, if current opposition leader and U.S. stalking horse Juan Guaidó takes power in Venezuela, all of these tight linkages will come to a screeching halt and the Cubans will be abruptly set adrift. And it would surely signal the beginning of the end of the hugely successful Cuban doctors for subsidized Venezuelan oil program that has underpinned their bilateral relations for some twenty years.
Moreover, the loss of the Venezuelan oil, unless it is replaced by similarly low-cost imports from Mexico, Algeria or Russia, could have a significantly negative impact on Cuba’s economic outlook. With an already sluggish economy (with predictions of less than 1.5 per cent growth for 2019) and inflows of foreign investment not anywhere near where Cuban officials would like to see them, a sharp cut-off in Venezuelan crude could bring on power blackouts in Cuba, disrupt the expanding private sector and force the Cuban government to allocate nearly $2 billion annually to cover alternative supplies to meet its current energy consumption demands.
In the final analysis, then, don’t be fooled by all this chatter and misdirection about Maduro’s Venezuela. This is really all about Cuba and removing that historical and mostly fabricated thorn in the U.S. side.
Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.