Havana, Caracas, and Washington
July 7, 2015
On July 1, the Obama Administration announced that, following a period of congressional review, the United States and Cuba would reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, respectively, for the first time since diplomatic ties were severed at the height of the Cold War. An outgrowth of the ongoing normalization process that Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced last December, the embassies are an important step in establishing a normal framework for bilateral ties.
This all happens as U.S. relations toward Venezuela seem more ambiguous than ever. After months of political and economic instability at home, the Venezuelan government recently claimed that the reappointment of ambassadors—roles that have been left empty since 2010—was imminent. Senator Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently traveled to Venezuela in the interest of exploring the future of bilateral ties, but Washington appears hesitant, particularly in light of Venezuela’s economic instability and apparent political repression.
In many ways, Cuba and Venezuela appear inextricably connected. Ideological partners since Presidents Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez were in power, the two countries have long been united by their bombastic rhetoric and anti-American sentiments—not to mention Venezuelan economic aid to Cuba and Cuban political, military, and intelligence support to Venezuela.
But Cuba’s normalization process with the United States opens a new chapter for the two countries—and a new chapter for each of them with respect to Washington. As Venezuela’s economy has faltered in the face of falling oil prices, high inflation, and widespread shortages of basic goods, Cuba has looked to the United States—out of economic necessity—for a renewed relationship, dialing back some of the traditional reticence, skepticism, hostility and distrust that has long characterized its posture toward the United States.
The two countries still have a lot in common—ideology, political tactics, and their roles in the region chief among them. But they are at distinct points in their respective relationships with the United States—and this calls for careful consideration of how U.S. strategy in those relationships might reasonably differ.
So, whatever their similarities, how are Cuba and Venezuela different? And what’s at stake for the United States in these relationships?
Q1: Why would Washington need different strategies for engaging Havana and Caracas? What unique challenges does each country pose to U.S. interests?
A1: Ultimately, it all boils down to security.
In the decades following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Washington largely saw Havana as a threat to our national security. Just 90 miles off U.S. shores, Soviet-backed Cuba posed a credible threat to the United States. And Fidel Castro’s eagerness to export the Cuban Revolution in the Western Hemisphere and overseas made that threat seem all the more pressing.
But in reality, the “threat” of Cuba has dissipated—largely following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, Cuba has diminished its efforts to export the revolution. With little military capacity of its own and no resources —particularly relative to the United States—Cuba simply doesn’t have the ability to pose a credible threat.
The context is relevant, too: despite difficult issues that have not been discussed like human rights and property expropriation, the last six months have seen the Cuban government generally ready and willing to cooperate with its U.S. counterpart, with both sides committing to a revitalized bilateral relationship. The progress already made is a reminder that the Cuba of today is no longer a looming threat.
The same cannot be said for Venezuela.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. federal authorities were investigating numerous Venezuelan officials (including National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello) for their roles in turning Venezuela into a narco-state, further entrenching drug trafficking in the country even as the U.S. government beats back drug trafficking throughout the region.
And the White House went so far as to formally label Venezuela as a threat to U.S. national security, sanctioning several Venezuelan officials for their roles in committing human rights abuses.
What’s more, many countries in Latin America depend on Venezuela through Petrocaribe, its politically tainted oil assistance program. As Venezuelan oil production continues to slow and the country is decreasingly able to meet its Petrocaribe commitments, the economic stability of much of the region is at stake. Economic collapse in Venezuela would, in turn, wreak economic havoc, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean.
Instability in Venezuela is also a threat for Colombia. Should Venezuela descend into chaos, Colombia could find a refugee crisis along its vast shared border. And a destabilized Colombia, Washington’s closest ally in the region and currently in a very critical phase of its peace talks with the FARC, would bode poorly for the United States in the regional context.
So whatever the two countries’ ideological similarities, they pose dramatically different challenges to the United States. As the threat of Cuba has diminished, the threat of Venezuela has grown in kind. And, following from that, the U.S. government has developed a distinct set of objectives for its relations with each of the countries.
Q2: What are the United States’ objectives in its relations with Cuba and Venezuela?
A2: In the long-term, the U.S. government has an interest in peaceful, market friendly democratic governance in both countries—and in stable and constructive bilateral relationships with both.
But in the short- and medium-term, Washington’s objectives for Venezuela and Cuba are distinct, and the contexts so different.
Securing a stable democracy, and the respect for human rights in Venezuela is an immediate goal.
Washington’s hope for the restoration of robust democracy in Caracas is threatened by the Venezuelan government’s willingness to curtail constitutional rights and prosecute the political opposition—including prominent opposition politicians Leopoldo Lopez, Daniel Ceballos, and Antonio Ledezma.
Besides the obvious objective, which would be the release of all political prisoners, an important move to lower local and bilateral tension would be for Caracas to allow OAS and EU election observers in the parliamentary elections later this year. By ensuring that the electoral outcome is both fair and trusted, the White House and others in the region hope to calm the political waters in the country. Still, the elections carry a risk as well. There’s a real chance that, if the opposition wins, Maduro’s government will double down, hesitant as it can be to accept checks and balances on its power.
And to make matters worse, achieving these goals occurs in an environment in which Venezuelan senior civilian and military personnel are allegedly involved in the production or trafficking of cocaine.
With Cuba, the situation is less volatile —especially now. And the context is the last six months of bilateral negotiations through the normalization process. Ultimately, the U.S. government hopes to see Cuba respect political freedoms, provide unrestricted access to information, and implement the new regulations governing the new and untested bilateral relationship.
Until last week, the short-term goal focused on reopening embassies in Washington and Havana. With that milestone nearly cleared, though, the two countries face a different immediate task: defining a framework that will drive the future of the bilateral relationship. Perhaps most pivotal for Washington is avoiding any backsliding on the progress already made through the past six months of discussions with Havana.
Q3: What’s at stake for the United States?
A3: U.S. hopes to stabilize Venezuela ultimately boil down to two issues: energy and drug trafficking.
Regional dependence on Venezuelan oil assistance is paramount. Should U.S. efforts to persuade Venezuela fail—and should Venezuela destabilize further—there’s a real possibility that much of Central America and the Caribbean will destabilize in kind. And at this point, that’s a real risk: Venezuelan currency reserves have fallen below US$16 billion even with heavy Chinese support, currency depreciation is through the roof, and inflation is nearing 200 percent.
Drug trafficking, an issue that has long plagued the region, could find a comfortable hub in Venezuela and truly take root—particularly if the country can’t get back on stable footing.
U.S. counternarcotics efforts make up much of its foreign policy in the region, particularly in Mexico and Colombia, and a new Venezuelan hub could mean major backsliding on hard-won victories in the war on drugs, especially those won in Colombia.
Conclusions: On one level, it’s possible that the new U.S.-Cuba relationship could help to ameliorate Washington’s conflict with Caracas. Cuba’s purportedly large role in Venezuela’s foreign affairs could provide a chance for triangulation among the three countries as relations progress.
Still, despite their ideological parity, Cuba and Venezuela in so many ways carry unique challenges and opportunities for the United States. Each bilateral relationship has different objectives—and, as a result, implies a different strategy to further U.S. interests in the regional context. Though Venezuela has tried (and tried hard) to make the case for its parity with Cuba, to believe that is to buy Venezuela’s narrative—not our own. Ultimately, it all boils down to this: Cuba is no longer a threat to the United States—but Venezuela is.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator and research assistant with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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