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The US-Venezuela-Cuba triangle

US and Venezuela meet in Brazil Reuters photographer

The Obama administration announced the intention to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba the same week that Congress approved sanctions against Venezuela for human rights violations.

The timing was coincidental and unrelated.

The Obama administration had been negotiating eighteen months with Cuba to arrange a prisoner exchange that allowed for progress on other fronts. The Senate and House approved the Venezuelan sanctions over the initial objections of the State Department.

Despite the sanctions, US Vice President Joe Biden and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro exchanged greetings during the inauguration of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on January 1.

After this impromptu meeting and apparently inspired by the US-Cuban prisoner exchange, President Maduro suggested he would release Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, (imprisoned since February 2014 but not yet convicted of charges related to street protests against the president) in exchange for the US releasing Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar Lopez Ramirez, who has been in jail in the US since 1981 for sedition. The cases are quite different and it is doubtful the proposal will go anywhere.

But could the US-Cuban rapprochement be replicated with Venezuela?

US-Cuba-Venezuela: a complicated triangular relationship

The United States broke relations and enacted a broad economic embargo against Cuba fifty years ago as a result of the revolutionary policies of the Castro government. In contrast, the US had good relations with Venezuela until the Chávez administration was elected in 1998 with a foreign policy goal of countering US dominance in the region.

After the Bush administration applauded a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, the relationship deteriorated further with mutual recriminations and the recall of ambassadors.

Nevertheless, the commercial relationship – dominated by Venezuelan oil exports to the US – has never been interrupted. Citgo, for example, remains 100% owned and operated by a subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela, the national oil company of Venezuela.

With the collapse of its Soviet Union patron in 1991, Cuba suffered a severe economic recession. Chávez, an ardent admirer of Fidel Castro, subsidized the Cuban economy in the 2000s by providing deeply discounted oil which the Cubans could then resell on the international market to bolster their foreign exchange.

Now, however, Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela is threatened since Venezuela is going through its own economic crisis amidst steeply declining oil prices, growing debt, and stagflation.

Cuba and Venezuela will remain strong allies

The Cubans are keenly aware of the pressures on Venezuela but in seeking to improve relations with the US, Cuba was looking not to replace Venezuelan aid but rather to ease the tight financial restrictions preventing foreign banks and firms from doing business with Cuba.

The threat of large fines by the US Treasury Department, for instance, made it impossible for the Cuban interest section in Washington, DC to find a bank to process visa payments this past year. If the Obama administration now removes Cuba from the state-sponsored terror list, it will help ease restrictions. But they won’t be removed altogether: the economic embargo as well as other financial regulations in place since 9/11 will remain.

Rather than bailing out the Cuban government, as critics charge, the policy changes announced by Obama on December 17 – to increase remittances, provide technology for better cell and internet access (if the Cuban government allows), and increase travel opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba – are likely to help Cuban citizens.

As for replacing Venezuelan aid, even if Venezuela is tempted to reduce the amount of discounted oil it provides to many Caribbean and Central American countries, Cuba is its strongest ally and is not likely to lose its status as recipient of Venezuelan largesse in exchange for Cuban doctors, sports trainers, and intelligence advisers.

Some have speculated the US-Cuban rapprochement could encourage a similar improvement in US-Venezuelan relations. The two countries exchanged chargés d'affaires in July 2014 –- the highest level diplomat short of ambassador –- after a diplomatic vacuum of several years.

The thaw continues, slowly

Normalization of US-Cuban relations at least removes the foil that Venezuelan leaders have used to accuse the United States of imperialist designs. It also gets rid of a major irritant in US relations with the rest of Latin America who have viewed US policy towards Cuba as a Cold War relic.

On the other hand, the targeted sanctions passed by the US Congress and signed by Obama the day after his Cuba announcement were characterized – as expected – by the Venezuelan government as a tool of the “imperialist north” to punish the Venezuelan people, even though they were aimed only at a few individual officials.

Venezuelan leaders also pointed out the hypocrisy of enacting new sanctions the same week that the Obama administration declared sanctions on Cuba to be a failure, and in the wake of allegations of racial discrimination by police and the US Senate report on torture tactics used by the CIA.

Indeed, Venezuelan officials will continue to attempt a rally-around-the-flag effect in response to the sanctions in order to take votes away from the opposition as the country heads into legislative elections in 2015.

In fact, however, international scrutiny and engagement can be more effective than sanctions in improving human rights conditions.

Cuba’s agreement to receive visits from the International Red Cross and United Nations Human Rights rapporteurs is a welcome byproduct of negotiations with the US.

Similarly, if Venezuela were to agree to international observers monitoring the prison conditions and trials of opposition politicians and student leaders, this could provide a basis for the Obama administration to delay implementation of the sanctions.

After all, even the United States faces scrutiny – and at times well-deserved criticism – from the UN Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But the United States also has independent branches of government to provide accountability, as reflected in the recent Senate report on CIA methods.

Cuba and Venezuela lack judicial and legislative independence, and have rejected visits by independent bodies such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Red Cross for many years.

Cuba’s change in posture on this score is a welcome overture and may encourage Venezuela to follow its lead. Should it do so, better human rights conditions would remove another obstacle to improved relations with the United States.

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