June 9, 2014
John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times
Perhaps it is because of years of mutual disregard that Latin America is rarely a US foreign policy priority. There always seem to be more urgent problems elsewhere. Now, however, there is the headache of Venezuela and how to deal with it.
More than 40 people have died in street protests this year. Peace talks have bogged down between the opposition and a government charged with human rights abuses. Meanwhile Venezuelans suffer raging inflation, shortages of goods and crime levels that make Caracas one of the deadliest cities on earth.
For the US, Venezuela presents the existential problem of how to respond to any crisis that comes with high stakes – it is the fourth largest supplier of US oil imports – but no easy fixes. In that sense, Venezuela is a replica of US foreign policy problems elsewhere, only with an extra domestic twist: it has become “Cubanised”.
Two bills, making their way through the US Congress, seek asset freezes and visa bans on Venezuelan officials guilty of human rights abuses. Both are also sponsored by senior Cuban-American legislators, who believe “Venezuela is the new Cuba” and are staunch supporters of Washington’s longstanding trade embargo against Havana.
There is a logic to this twinning. Every year, Venezuela sends Cuba thousands of barrels of subsidised oil. In return, communist Havana sends doctors and highly trained intelligence advisers to socialist Caracas. Punish Venezuela and you therefore squeeze Cuba, its closest ally.
But the bills serve another purpose too. Raising awareness of Cuba’s controversial involvement in Venezuela’s chaos counters a growing domestic lobby that wants to open up US policy towards Cuba – a country of which, as Cyrus Vance, a former secretary of state, remarked: “We seem unable to maintain a sense of perspective.”
In the latest example, more than 40 high-ranking policy heavyweights, including John Negroponte, former national intelligence director under George W. Bush, wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to expand US contact with Cuban society to try and foster change on the island.
Even the leading candidate to be Florida’s next governor, Charlie Crist, has said he wants the embargo lifted – a political no-no only 10 years ago. But then Florida politics have changed as Cuban-Americans now make almost 500,000 family trips a year to the island and have a stake in closer, or at least easier, ties.
This lifting of the taboo on questioning the Cuban embargo has prompted a rearguard action by its supporters: hence, in part, the Venezuela sanctions bill. Although the embargo is unlikely to change while USAID contractor Alan Gross remains in a Havana jail – its full removal anyway requires an act of Congress – the burden of proof about the policy is shifting.
In that sense, the Cuba debate is akin to the legalisation of drugs, another major regional concern. This argument is no longer cast as for or against; black versus white. Instead there are many shades in between: maintain bans on some drugs, while regulating or decriminalising others.
Similarly nuanced arguments are playing out about what the US should now do about Venezuela. Yes, publicise Venezuela’s extraordinary levels of corruption. Yes, also encourage Latin American allies to abandon their silence about abuses they would not tolerate in their own country.
But sanctions? No one argues seriously for a Cuban-style trade embargo. Even targeted sanctions could provide Caracas with an anti-imperialist rallying cry, while barely inconveniencing officials. That is why most, but not all, of the Venezuelan opposition are at best lukewarm.
Furthermore, such unilateralism would further isolate the US in the region. Either way, the Obama administration opposes the bills – and it in any case has the discretionary powers to slap on sanctions should it ever want to, as it has shown with Russia.
Some Venezuelans and Cuban-Americans will disagree. That may help assuage their frustrations but also ignores a central lesson of the Cuban exile story. This has produced 50 years of debate about isolation or detente, but failed to produce change in Havana. So argue for punishment and US sanctions by all means, but then also consider the prospect of being forever exiled, Cuban style.