U.S. President Barack Obama announced July 1 that the United States and Cuba will formally re-establish diplomatic ties. Both countries will eventually appoint ambassadors, while embassies in Havana and Washington will be opened on or after July 20. The opening of embassies is a crucial step in renewing relations with Cuba, though the Cuban embargo could take years to lift because of the need for congressional approval. The U.S.-Cuban rapprochement stands out because it allows the United States increased leeway to address two major events playing out in the hemisphere, both of which directly relate to Cuba.
The first of these issues is peace negotiations in Havana between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Colombian government. Talks are progressing despite an upsurge in FARC attacks nationwide since late May. The violence — that has long been used to get more concessions out of talks — is a sign that substantive issues are likely under discussion.
Talks will continue on whether demobilized FARC leaders would receive punishment for crimes committed during the insurgency. Both sides have already committed themselves to setting up alternate courts where FARC members can confess their crimes, but the rebels are reluctant to face punishment. The issue of whether militants receive jail time, alternate punishments, or are forced to pay compensation for past crimes is also unresolved. One of the militants' key demands is that demobilized FARC members must not be extradited to the United States, which has pending extradition requests for numerous FARC militants accused of drug trafficking.
Many of the current FARC commanders were active during the Cold War and received support from Havana, which still respects the group enough to host the peace talks. Financial support from Cuba, however, declined with the end of the Cold War and the FARC increasingly relied on cocaine trafficking as a means of revenue, though ideological affinities between the two clearly remain. Consequently, deepening U.S.-Cuban ties may facilitate Washington's further involvement in the talks.
In February, retired U.S. State Department official Bernard Aronson joined the negotiations, suggesting the United States intends to become involved in helping settle the question of FARC amnesty and demobilization. Although improved U.S.-Cuban relations may help such a negotiated solution occur, the talks' ultimate success or failure hinges on the direct negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government.
The second major issue is the U.S. attempt to influence the direction of Venezuela's deepening economic and political crisis. The United States kept tentative political links with Venezuela for years despite poor relations. Starting earlier this year, U.S. officials began a major diplomatic outreach to renew bilateral ties (Venezuela withdrew its ambassador to the United States in 2010) and potentially engineer a means to address Venezuela's looming crises.
The former aim is less ambitious than the latter. Though ties with Caracas can improve quickly as a result of U.S. involvement, finding a solution to the endemic shortage of foreign currency hampering Venezuela's way out of severe recession is challenging. Caracas is largely cut off from foreign lending, and low oil prices, major domestic economic distortions, and high foreign debt obligations will likely drive it to the brink of default later this year. Venezuela faces several billion in debt payments over the coming year and its depleted reserves and reduced oil income mean that the government will be hoarding all the dollars it can — at the expense of funding imports.
Moreover, while the United States seems to have been capable of securing a promise from Venezuelan officials to release political prisoners, the economic support that the United States can (and is willing) to deliver to Venezuela may be limited. Venezuela needs financial support to avert a sharp economic crash, and was the first to approach the United States regarding talks. Yet it isn't apparent whether Washington intends to provide any such assistance, or whether it simply intends to manage the country's economic decline to forestall a major political crisis from breaking out in the near term.
As far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, Cuba and Venezuela remain closely linked. Cuba is a strategic ally of Venezuela because of the Castro family's closeness to top Venezuelan officials. For embargoed, cash-strapped Cuba, Venezuela is the sole consistent source of oil and refined products. Caracas prioritizes its ties with Havana to the point that, amid a major economic collapse, it has maintained around 80,000 to 90,000 barrels per day in oil shipments to Cuba. The sudden reversal in the U.S. stance toward Cuba in December 2014 likely motivated the Venezuelan government to begin its own outreach to the United States. The threat of additional sanctions on individuals or prosecution for drug trafficking charges will likely keep Venezuelan officials involved in the negotiations and could see them make political concessions to the United States or the Venezuelan political opposition.
Washington's rapidly improving ties with Havana provide a starting point for the United States to insert itself more firmly into the Colombian negotiations as well as embracing the Venezuelan diplomatic outreach. With the decline of Venezuela, Cuba's thawing relationship with the United States and the winding down of Colombia's insurgency, Washington has an opportunity to reassert its influence in Latin America over the coming years.