With President Donald Trump singling out “the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela” in his State of the Union address and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson using his first trip to Latin America to rally regional support for tougher measures against Venezuela, the Trump administration is clearly signaling its intention to escalate diplomatic and economic pressure on the authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
There is no other course. The Maduro regime’s intransigence, its systematic destruction of democracy, and its epic economic malpractice are creating not only a humanitarian nightmare within Venezuela, but a migration crisis that threatens the stability of it neighbors, including Colombia and nearby Caribbean islands.
Pressing forward on a strategy of increased sanctions and multilateral pressure is right, but at the same time the Trump administration cannot delink Venezuela and Cuba, for there will be no resolution in Venezuela without addressing the pernicious influence of the Castro regime in fortifying Maduro’s grip on power and rooting out any internal opposition to the breakdown of democratic order.
Today, the penetration of Venezuela by thousands of Cuban operatives is complete. While it remains difficult to quantify the exact numbers, according to a Brookings Institution report, Cuban intelligence operatives and military advisors in Venezuela range from hundreds to thousands. Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro puts the number at 15,000, likening them to “an occupation army from Cuba in Venezuela.”
Certainly, there is nothing new to the incestuous Venezuela-Cuba relationship. What is new is the Maduro regime’s increasing brazenness in pursuing an uncompromising survival strategy straight out of the Castro playbook: ever-more reliance on repression to maintain control, while driving the discontented out of the country. Cuba’s fingerprints are all over this human tragedy.
So what more can the Trump administration do to hold Cuba accountable? The United States already maintains an embargo on most commercial activity with Cuba and the U.S. embassy there is running on a skeleton staff due to the health attacks on U.S. diplomats. Yet, there are options that would raise the costs to the Castro regime for its destructive role in Venezuela, for which it has paid no price to date.
Here are some recommendations:
- Suspend the working groups between the U.S. and Cuba established by the Obama administration, especially the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogues, which involves intelligence-sharing on counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and other criminal activity. Cuban President Raúl Castro desperately craves legitimacy through these meetings, even as common sense screams out about their utter incongruity.
- Expand U.S. drug investigations in Venezuela to Cuban officials based there. Venezuela is a full-blown narco-state, with numerous high-ranking officials implicated in facilitating drug shipments from Colombia through Venezuela and on to the United States and Europe. Given Cuba’s intimate standing in Venezuela, it defies belief that some Cuban officials are not likewise complicit.
- Oppose Cuba’s participation in the eighth Summit of the Americas, to be held April 13 and 14 in Lima, Peru. Although there has been no word on Cuba’s participation, it attended the 2015 summit with the acquiescence of the Obama administration. Cuba’s ongoing, destructive role in Venezuela merits vociferous opposition on the part of the United States this time around.
- Target Cubans operating in Venezuela with sanctions. In its first year, the Trump administration sanctioned more than two dozen Venezuelan officials for narcotrafficking, assaults against democracy, and human right abuses. It should extend those sanctions to Cuban officials in Venezuela. While they are not likely to have assets in the United States to be frozen or visas to be withdrawn, sanctions would target their dealings with entities that come into contact with the U.S. financial system. Secondly, the stigma of U.S. sanctions is a powerful psychological tool, especially when targets are named and shamed before the Venezuelan people.
- To raise the economic costs to Cuba, reactivate Title IV of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, which denies U.S. visas to foreign persons profiting from confiscated property in Cuba claimed by U.S. nationals. In 22 years, the provision has only been invoked a handful of times. Reintroducing this threat will have a chilling effect on the Castro regime’s effort to lure foreign investment in its tourism industry, the Cuban military’s cash cow.
- Return Cuba to the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Obama administration removed Cuba for purely political purposes to facilitate its normalization process, despite there being no evidence the Castro regime had mended its ways (in fact, the evidence points to the contrary).
There is very little to be optimistic about regarding Venezuela. Some liken it to an out-of-control bus that needs to crash before anything can be done. But that is an abdication of responsibility by those in a position to prevent such a tragedy and a disservice to the Venezuelan people. Moreover, there will be those who claim the United States has no moral authority to act in preventing the destruction of Venezuela. It’s very likely, however, that not many of them live there.