When a cargo ship arrived in Cuba from Caracas this week, with supplies to help the island rebuild after Hurricane Irma, it carried a typically warm message from Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan president. “This modest help demonstrates our nations’ civic and military union,” it read.
Communist Cuba is one of socialist Venezuela’s few remaining allies. In return for subsidised oil and aid, Havana provides Caracas with doctors and intelligence operatives, a relationship that has long irked the US. “Venezuela can always count on Cubans being in the front line of militant solidarity,” Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president, said recently.
Lately, though, US, European and Latin American diplomats have courted Havana, hoping its close Caracas relationship means it could serve as a facilitator rather than an obstacle in encouraging a transition away from Mr Maduro.
His problems will probably reach a climax again soon because Venezuela must repay bondholders $3.5bn over the next four weeks, heightening a cash crunch that has slashed annual imports to $13bn, an 80 per cent drop in five years. After running street protests this year left more than 120 dead, the government is also likely to lose badly to the opposition in state governor elections on October 15.
“At some point the Maduro government will collapse. The questions are when and under what circumstances — a negotiated exit, an internal coup, or default and chaos,” said a European diplomat close to conversations with Venezuela and Cuba. “The idea of Maduro seeking exile in Cuba has been discussed, although not yet. But the Cubans will eventually play a critical role.”
At some point the Maduro government will collapse. The questions are when and under what circumstances — a negotiated exit, an internal coup, or default and chaos
Despite their ideological affinity, there are many reasons why Cuba might give up Venezuela.
Aid is dwindling. Over the past two years, Caracas has slashed the 100,000 barrels per day of subsidised oil once sent to Havana by 40 per cent. Cuba’s political cost of supporting Mr Maduro is also rising, even as US policy and rhetoric hardens.
Donald Trump, US president, mentioned Venezuela as many times as North Korea in his maiden UN speech last month, and has similarly talked loosely about invasion. This week, his administration also expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington after a series of mysterious “sonic attacks” on US and Canadian diplomats in Havana.
“Unusually, the region is increasingly siding with the US over Venezuela, instead of with Cuba,” said Paul Hare, a former UK ambassador to Cuba. “Venezuela has become a wedge issue.”
Highlights from the FT archive on Venezuela’s unfolding crisis
Cuba’s ability to broker a Venezuela deal is also widely accepted. Cuban agents are understood to control important military posts, so helping forestall an internal coup against Mr Maduro. The all-powerful Constituent Assembly, installed by Mr Maduro in August, is also a leaf taken out of Cuba’s repressive playbook, in turn learnt from the Soviet Union.
Lastly, alongside other pro-Cuban cabinet members such as Cilia Flores, the first lady, and Elías Jaua, education minister, Mr Maduro recently appointed Érika Farías, an orthodox pro-Cuban socialist, as his chief of staff.
“The calculus in Havana seems to be that bolstering its already enormous influence over Caracas will improve its bargaining position with [the] Trump administration,” suggested the weekly political risk report by Caracas Chronicles, a website. “Venezuela is more and more a pawn in a chess game . . . between outside powers.”
Venezuela is more and more a pawn in a chess game . . . between outside powers
Be that as it may, outside attempts to enlist Cuba’s help have failed so far. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, travelled to Havana in July to seek its support for a regional diplomatic push to resolve Venezuela’s crises. Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister, followed in August, reportedly offering subsidised Mexican oil as a substitute for Venezuelan crude.
“It’s not just Colombia and Mexico: the US has also quietly put pressure on Cuba to stand down on its Venezuelan support,” Christopher Sabatini, international affairs lecturer at Columbia University, said.
“The problem is that what they all seek goes against Cuba’s DNA of non-intervention. Cuba would never force Venezuela to agree to a mediated solution it did not want.”
Another complication is Cuba’s own problems. With Mr Castro set to step down as president next February, Havana is preoccupied with internal succession and has clamped down on reform and dissent. Meanwhile, White House disorganisation combined with the apparent sub-contracting of US-Latin America policy to conservative Cuban-American lawmakers such as Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, makes a US quid pro quo for Cuban support unlikely.
“Cuba has the wherewithal to help, by offering Maduro exile and anyone else he takes with him. That’s a price perhaps worth paying if it helps Venezuela transition,” said José Cárdenas, a former state department official who supports Mr Trump’s harsher Cuba policy. “The problem is: what’s the incentive for the Cubans to do so? And could they really be bought off?”
The short answer is: perhaps, just not yet. “The Cubans won’t jump horse in Venezuela until another one is available,” said one US official. “Everyone has tried. But nobody is saying they will — if ever.”
This post originally appeared on Financial Times