Are U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela Really About Cuba?

03/27/2015 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015
RAUL ARBOLEDA via Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- For the last 15 years, Venezuela has been mired in crisis, characterized by wasteful government spending, rampant corruption, growing authoritarianism, relentless human-rights violations, and now economic collapse. But, beyond the occasional sharp word from the late President Hugo Chávez, the periodic expropriation of a foreign company without adequate compensation, and some minor meddling in the elections of neighboring countries, the crisis barely registered abroad. This is no longer the case.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama officially classified Venezuela as an "extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," and ordered sanctions against seven officials, thereby stoking bilateral tensions. But, while the crisis in Venezuela undoubtedly has far-reaching implications, the precise motivation behind Obama's decision remains unclear.

One possible explanation stems from the enduring passivity of Venezuela's regional neighbors toward its plight. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Colombia have remained largely silent in the face of recurring abuses by Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, including the imprisonment of opposition leaders, repression of public protests, and media censorship. Obama may be trying to force these countries to choose sides: either support Venezuela explicitly or support the U.S. in opposing its leaders' policies.

More important, Obama could be trying to drive a wedge between Venezuela and Cuba at a time when the Cuban leadership is keenly interested in improving its relationship with the U.S.. As it stands, Cuba will sink without Venezuela -- unless, of course, it finds another lifeline. The U.S. -- which in placing itself in direct opposition to Venezuela has also highlighted the country's fragility -- may be an increasingly appealing option. And, indeed, many experts anticipate the eventual normalization of Cuba-U.S. relations, despite short-term political obstacles.

In any case, Maduro has not taken Obama's affront lightly. Employing the age-old tactic of exaggerating the threat of external aggression -- in this case, from what Maduro, like Chávez before him, refers to as the "empire" -- to justify internal repression, he has compelled the legislative assembly to enact a law enabling him to govern temporarily by decree.

To reinforce the image that a U.S. invasion may be imminent, Maduro has mobilized the army and militia for war maneuvers. Last year, when Panama requested that the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States dedicate a regular meeting to the Venezuelan crisis, Maduro severed diplomatic relations for four months, accusing the Panamanians of joining the U.S. in an "open conspiracy" against him.

This approach has helped Maduro obtain the support of the Union of South American Nations -- a new regional bloc that issues harmless pronouncements. But he is not done yet. He is now preparing to transform the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama -- which Obama and, for the first time, Cuba's Raúl Castro are expected to attend -- into a rhetorical witch hunt against "Yankee interventionism" in his country.

Maduro seems to hope that such agitation will impede efforts by Obama and Castro to begin normalizing relations at the summit. As it stands, it is possible that they could meet bilaterally to negotiate the establishment of embassies in each other's capitals, with the US potentially even removing Cuba from the list of countries that it counts as supporters of international terrorism.

But, with the U.S. engaged in such a severe political confrontation with Venezuela, progress would effectively require that Cuba abandon its unconditional support for the Venezuelan regime. Given Cuba's desperation to attract investment, tourism, and trade, such an outcome is certainly plausible.

Of course, Cuba is not the only country facing the stark choice between intervention in Venezuela and support for Chavismo. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Chile -- all of which back neither alternative, and have rightly applauded the détente between Cuba and the U.S. -- must also consider their options ahead of the Panama summit.

Will these countries' leaders join Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in supporting Maduro, backing Obama into a corner in Panama? Or will they disable the trap Maduro is trying to set, perhaps even reprising Spanish King Juan Carlos I's 2007 outburst to Chávez: "Why don't you shut up?"

Amid these questions, one thing is certain: Latin America's larger countries cannot continue to ignore Venezuela's crisis. If the country's economic collapse -- the consequence of incompetent governance and the sharp fall in oil prices -- is not enough to spur them to choose a side, Obama's extreme maneuver will be. Their time for indifference is over.

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