As U.S. President Donald Trump shapes his policies on Latin America, two countries may prove to be of more pressing concern than most: Cuba and Venezuela. Since 2014, Washington has sought to mend ties with Havana. Trump will now have to decide whether to continue, amend or reverse those policies first implemented by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Meanwhile, worsening unrest and political infighting in Venezuela will become increasingly difficult for the White House to ignore. The fates of Cuba and Venezuela may not be as separate as they seem at first glance. If the United States takes steps to cool its warming ties with Cuba, the beleaguered government in Venezuela might be able to cling to power a little longer.
A Rollback Few Would Fight
Cuban and Venezuelan issues are by no means at the top of the new U.S. administration's agenda. By necessity, they have long taken a back seat to problems like the Syrian civil war, the North Korean nuclear program and Russian encroachment in Ukraine. Nevertheless, there are a number of U.S. officials with a stake in Washington's diplomatic relations with the two Latin American states.
Among them are a handful of U.S. lawmakers eager to see Obama's outreach to Cuba undone. These figures argue that Havana has received too many concessions from Washington while making too few of its own, particularly with regard to human rights. However, there is also a growing group of lawmakers who advocate freer trade with Cuba; in late May, 55 U.S. senators backed a bill permitting U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba without restriction.
Their voices may not be loud enough to sway Trump's decision, though. After all, Cuba likely isn't an issue crucial enough to the U.S. Congress that lawmakers would attempt to pressure the president to support the Senate's proposed bill. Though the Republicans in charge of the legislative and executive branches have had varying degrees of success in rolling back Obama's initiatives in several other areas, Washington's ties with Havana are a far less sensitive domestic issue than matters such as health care.
Backtracking on the White House's outreach to Cuba, then, is something the president can pursue quickly with few political consequences at home. Though popular support for better ties with Cuba is higher than it has been in decades, several influential U.S. lawmakers — including Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez — opposed Obama's decision to begin thawing relations with Havana in 2014. Despite substantial support on both sides of the aisle for greater trade with Cuba, few U.S. companies or individuals would incur losses if trade and travel regulations with the island were tightened once more. So while many U.S. politicians and firms would like greater access to the Cuban market, it is by no means necessary. Cuba is still a relatively poor nation of about 12 million people with few trade links to the United States. Trump could therefore rescind parts of Obama's executive orders loosening trade and travel regulations to Cuba without much risk of backlash at home.
For Cuba, a Life Jacket or Straitjacket?
In Venezuela, the White House's path forward is much less clear. The country's social and economic crises, though increasingly desperate, are simply of too low priority to warrant direct intervention from the United States. Washington is certainly concerned about Venezuela's role as a regional drug-trafficking hub, its movement toward a single-party state, and rising immigration from Venezuela to neighboring states as the country's economic crisis deepens. But any move to slap human rights-related sanctions on the entities that generate revenue for the Venezuelan state will only worsen the country's dire economic straits. And because Venezuela's problems pose no significant threat to the United States, most previous administrations in Washington have been content to leave Caracas' foundering government in place.
This approach has suited Cuba's leaders well. For Havana, the survival of a friendly government in Caracas is a matter of national security: Venezuela provides the tiny island nation with around 55,000 of the less than 170,000 barrels of crude oil and fuels it consumes per day, at a steep discount. This arrangement has largely insulated the cash-strapped Cuban government from spikes in crude prices.
In some ways, however, it has also acted as a straitjacket, tightly wrapping up the Cuban government's fate in Venezuela's. (It is no surprise that, amid mounting unrest in Venezuela, Havana has moved quickly to shore up its defense of the Venezuelan government) Even without the threat of government collapse in Venezuela, Cuban leaders would be worried about the declining output and looming financial default of state-owned energy company Petroleos de Venezuela. Havana likely lacks the funds to immediately replace cheap Venezuelan oil with full-price imports from producers elsewhere, leaving it with few options except fuel rationing in the event that Venezuelan energy supplies dwindle.
Cuban President Raul Castro will thus maintain his support for his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, in the months ahead; the only alternative would be to jeopardize his own seat in power. According to a Stratfor source, Havana has sent Cuban paramilitary forces to Venezuela through the ports of La Guaira, Guanta and Puerto Cabello, in addition to the intelligence personnel it already had stationed in the country. Caracas intends to embed these forces within the Venezuelan National Guard units tasked with stamping out the country's persistent protests.
A Matter of Priorities
It is this relationship between Cuba and Venezuela that the White House will have to take into account as it settles its policies toward each country — particularly the latter, more troubled state. Venezuela's nationwide demonstrations, which have lasted for nearly two months, reflect the public's deep dissatisfaction with the Maduro administration. They are also unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, despite heavy surveillance and increasing arrests, calling into question the ruling party's ability to win gubernatorial and presidential elections in December 2017 and November 2018, respectively. Meanwhile, with the Venezuelan attorney general's office increasingly at odds with Maduro's inner circle, infighting among the country's political elite will probably escalate.
These problems will not prevent Cuba from continuing to prop up Maduro's government (or any similar successor administration that emerges). In the short run, reliable, low-cost energy imports are too important to risk losing to a change in government. And if the United States rescinds its concessions to Cuba, Havana will have few reasons left not to ramp up its support for the Venezuelan administration Washington so opposes. Should it do so, the life of the Maduro administration or an allied successor could lengthen, guaranteeing Havana security in its fuel imports for the near future. (Cuban assistance would, among other things, protect the Venezuelan government somewhat from growing dissent within the armed forces.) It would also, however, result in greater repression and violence against Venezuelan opposition parties and their constituents, putting the United States in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between placing heavier sanctions on Venezuela or allowing a more authoritarian government to stay in power unopposed in Caracas.
These concerns will no doubt enter into the White House's discussions as it weighs its options. But they probably won't determine the administration's final decision on its Cuban and Venezuelan strategies. With many other, more pressing matters to attend to, Trump could easily choose to set these questions aside for the time being. If he doesn't, the president will have the leeway to craft his Latin American policy without worrying about blowback at home — freedom that could certainly result in a reversal of Obama's outreach to Cuba, despite the political consequences it would have farther south.