Obama’s Cuba Legacy May Run Through Venezuela

Obama's historic moves in normalizing relations with Cuba risk being jeopardized if the US leader fails to overcome rightwing efforts to derail reconciliation with Venezuela.


Last week the U.S. government took the deeply ironic step of removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is the U.S. that has been a state sponsor of terrorism directed at Cuba. From the launching of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the numerous U.S.-organized assassination attemptsagainst Fidel Castro to the blowing up of a jetliner and other terrorist attacks from Cuban exiles operating out of the United States, U.S. terrorism against Cuba has spanned more than four decades.

The latest move removes one obstacle from the normalization of relations with Cuba, but there are many more ahead, including the 53-year-old U.S. embargo, which has been condemned by nearly the entire world for decades, and the much-hated U.S. military base and prison at Guantánamo, which the Cubans have indicated is a deal breaker if it is not closed down. Another irony: The U.S. government lectures Cuba about human rights while it illegally imprisons and tortures people on the island.

But another issue Cuba has raised with Washington could have even more important implications for the region. It is now apparent, as I first suggested a month ago, that the Cubans made it clear to President Barack Obama that normalization of relations would be limited if Washington was unwilling to normalize relations with Venezuela. This is important because U.S. hostility toward Venezuela, especially Washington’s supportfor regime change there, has poisoned relations with Latin America even more than the embargo against Cuba.

Obama appears to have gotten the message. He met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the Summit of the Americas on April 11 and backtrackedfrom his executive order that declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. security. Obama has sent a top State Department official, Tom Shannon, to Caracas twice since April 7 to make peace. A career diplomat and an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Shannon is considered pragmatic in Washington circles. In the context of Venezuela, this means someone who favors support for groups that want to get rid of the government mainly through electoral means rather than through violence or a military coup. 

This is not the first time Obama has moved toward normalizing relations with Venezuela. In 2010 the administration attempted to re-establish relations at the ambassadorial level. This was sabotaged by then-Sen. Richard Lugar’s office, probably in collaboration with like-minded people in the State Department. Last summer, the U.S. accepted a chargé d’affaires — the No. 2 position after ambassador — at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. A few weeks after that, U.S. federal prosecutors had a Venezuelan retired general, Hugo Carvajal, arrested in Aruba despite his diplomatic passport, in apparent violation of the nearly sacrosanct Vienna Convention protecting diplomats. An island with a population of 100,000 that is 17 miles from Venezuela, Aruba is part of the Netherlands. The arrest almost destroyed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, but the Netherlands intervened and ordered him freed on the grounds of diplomatic immunity.

The pattern is clear and easily understandable: There are many people in the Obama administration and Congress who do not want to normalize relations with Venezuela. (As was noted in the press, the same is true to a lesser extent for normalizing relations with Cuba. Obama kept top State Department officials in the dark for more than a year of negotiations.) So it was not surprising to see a 2,500-word Wall Street Journal article on May 18, with a far-fetched allegation that the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, was the chief of a drug cartel.

The same federal prosecutors’ offices involved in the Carvajal case — cited anonymously, of course — were the main sources for the WSJ article. They were backed up by other interested parties, including defectors and drug dealers, who often get reduced sentences for pointing the finger at the appropriate villain. It’s a dubious, one-sided story. (The WSJ, like many other U.S. media outlets, appears to suspend the rules of basic journalism, including fact-checking, when reporting on Venezuela.) The authors, however, included one tweet from a Venezuela general, which captured the ease with which these prosecutors can gather “evidence”: “We all know that whoever wants his green card and live in the U.S. to visit Disney can just pick his leader and accuse him of being a narco. DEA tours will attend to them.”

But the article gets the message across. As in the Carvajal case, federal prosecutors’ offices will have sealed indictments ready to go if one of their targets should step outside Venezuela. When that happens, a diplomatic crisis will be created, and there goes Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Venezuela, for the remainder of his term. And unfortunately, Miami and New York federal prosecutors are not the only U.S. government officials who do not want normal relations with Venezuela.

Back to the Cubans and their negotiations with Obama: They have some bargaining power here. It seems clear that Obama wants to be the president who opened up relations with Cuba. Will they hold him blameless if right-wing elements in the U.S. government try to blow up U.S.-Venezuelan relations? Or will they remind him that President Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here”?

Obama has proved quite tough when he wants something. He has faced down formidable opposition, including from one of America’s most powerful lobbying groups, the Israel lobby, in order to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran. He can do the same for Latin America, if he so chooses.