The political and humanitarian disaster of today’s Venezuela was entirely predictable if one examines its evolution, and in particular its many sponsors. The first and most prominent, of course, has been the tag team of the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl. Their authoritarian and dehumanizing style of government is the quintessential model for Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and Cuba’s military and intelligence agents continue to wield huge influence and power in Caracas today. Fully understanding this dynamic is the key to addressing the current crisis – and ultimately alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people.
Going all the way back to the consolidation of Castro’s authoritarian regime in Cuba in the early 1960s, Fidel’s dream was to export his dictatorial model to the rest of Latin America (and beyond as in the Congo and Angola) with his foco theory of attempting to generate insurgencies in Bolivia and elsewhere. Virtually every country in the region with a left-of-center and authoritarian style of government was aided and abetted by Cuba’s military and intelligence services: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and now Venezuela.
More recently, other socialist-leaning leaders in Latin America also enabled authoritarian rule to take root in Venezuela. Think back to the early-to-mid 2000s and recall the rising “pink tide” across the region. The leaders in those countries were longtime admirers of Fidel, the result of a strong regional tendency of valuing hierarchy, order, and authority over liberty. They not only tolerated the Fidel-Hugo show, they supported it enthusiastically.
The single entity that strongly resisted this expansion for many years was the United States, with its consistent foreign policy of recognizing the Castro model for what it was (and continues to be): A ruthless and dominant authoritarian regime which deprived its citizens of social, political, and economic freedoms.
But in 2012 or so, the Obama administration thought it would be a good idea to downplay the Castros’ 50-year record of human rights violations and support for terrorists, insurgencies, and outlaw states (Iran and North Korea, by way of example) and provide the regime with what it craved most from the U.S.: legitimacy. Rather than seeing the reality of the Cuban people’s five-decade nightmare as a glass half-empty and the logical product of a communist ideology, the Obama administration apparently saw the glass half-full of potential reform. Since the deal, however, time has shown that the Castros have no interest in political reform, and the only economic interest is to strengthen the party, the military and the state – not the well-being of the citizenry.
The standard Cuban government refrain is that their socialist paradise is the envy of the region, and its economic woes are the exclusive and sole fault of the U.S. embargo (predictably, this is now Maduro’s excuse as well). This is, of course, complete hogwash. The Cuban economy trades with the rest of the world; the reason for its poor economic performance is the direct result of poor economic policies, pure and simple. Every successful economy in the world functions on some variant of a market-based system; the underperformers are those that do not, and instead attempt to utilize a command-economy model. The former Soviet Union is the textbook case in which the largest, most resource-rich country in the world can fail economically if poorly administered.
What does all this have to do with the tragedy that is present-day Venezuela?
Maduro has been under the influence – if not outright control – of Cuban political advisors, intelligence services, and military since Chavez’s departure from the scene. The Obama administration’s response was to attempt various mediation efforts, none of which succeeded, in part because they were negotiating with the wrong folks. As the descent into chaos has accelerated, Cuba now has “an occupation army” in Venezuela, according to Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States. De-facto ownership of Venezuela’s oil riches would be a lifeline to Cuba’s dismal economic model.
It is clearly not in the U.S. national security interest, nor that of other responsible regional actors, that Venezuela fall out of the viable nation-state orbit. This is why the Trump administration should make it crystal-clear to Raúl Castro – newly installed President Miguel Díaz-Canel is a mere figurehead at this point – and company that their continued efforts to transform Venezuela along Cuba’s path will not be tolerated.
There are a number of measures the administration could consider to get the Cuban government’s attention:
To begin, given the ebbing of the pink tide, involve Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and even Canada to ensure consensus and refine ideas for multilateral moves; this is one issue of agreement between the U.S. and the other regional leaders.
Second, engage Cuba through backchannel links to make clear U.S. unwillingness to continue to tolerate Cuba’s penetration of the Maduro regime. Inform the Cuban government of the U.S. government’s requirement that Cuba extricate itself from Venezuela as a precondition to improved U.S.–Cuban relations. Make explicit the actions the U.S. government is prepared to not only reverse Obama’s policies (e.g., place Cuba back on the state sponsors of terrorism list, halt the range of working groups established in 2014, re-impose trade restrictions, and so forth), but to consider imposing additional costs if necessary.
Third, offer to consider further steps to increase bilateral collaboration across a range of activities should Cuba take action to create an off-ramp for Maduro and crew, and thus help set the stage for a peaceful political transition, urgently needed humanitarian relief, and eventual economic recovery. Previous attempts to negotiate exclusively with Maduro have not and are unlikely to solve this tragedy. If Cuba wants to improve its relationship with the U.S., it needs to help resolve this crisis largely of its making.
Deare is on the faculty at the National Defense University. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.