Re-establishing ties with Cuba but putting the screws on Venezuela

The end of 2014 saw some major developments in Latin America. By the end of November electoral victories by centre-left administrations were obtained in Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay. With numerous and well deserved criticisms being made against the track record of the Workers Party government in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s victory was nevertheless of particular significance at a national level and to administrations like Nicolás Maduro’s in Venezuela.

Likewise, on a regional level, the continuity of the PT in Brazil will likely see a further consolidation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which earlier in December inaugurated its headquarters in Ecuador. Among these developments, UNASUR also ratified the creation of a South American passport and the establishment of a South American School of Defence so as to train military officers and civilians in matters of combat.

While these changes in UNASUR have been given little attention in the mainstream media, they are certainly not going unnoticed in Washington. Hence we come to the recent changes between U.S.-Cuba relations.

As I have previously noted on this blog, Brazil has become a large trading partner for Cuba. Due to the U.S. blockade, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. economy misses out on $1.2 to $3.6 billion annually from its possible trade with Cuba. Add to this the fact that, other than the support of Israel, Palau and the Marshal Island, the U.S. has been voted against at the U.N. General Assembly for years on the issue of the blockade, Washington’s policy towards Cuba has become completely isolated.

In Latin America this has particularly been the case with just about every country in the region having re-established ties with Havana. A few years ago at the Organization of American States (OAS) – a body with a long record of subservience to U.S. interests – the issue of the U.S. blockade became so divisive the OAS invited Cuba to return to its ranks to which Havana replied: thanks, but no thanks.

Writing on the shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba in the Americas Program (23/12/14), Wayne S. Smith – a senior fellow at the Centre for International Policy in Washington D.C. and former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-82 – recently commented that:

This change came at a critical moment. The Obama administration had to come to it or risk a further deterioration of relations with the rest of the hemisphere. There were questions in Latin America about our relations with Cuba and what that said about our policy in the hemisphere. Now those questions have been set aside and we can move forward to focus on improved relations with all.

But this may not necessarily be the case. While the Obama administration deserves credit for its new stance towards Havana, in the same month of December the U.S. Congress approved new sanctions against Venezuela. While Caracas already has sanctions which prohibit the sale of U.S. military technology (including that of third parties with any U.S. components), the new round of sanctions will see the denial of visas and freezing of assets of any Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of anti-government groups.

Interestingly, while the Obama administration and vast sections of the private media made much of the violent right-wing student protests against Maduro early last year, both UNASUR and the OAS saw things rather differently. With the exception of the U.S. and Panama, in March the Associated Press (09/03/14) noted that: 

The OAS approved a declaration that rejected violence and called for justice for the 21 people the government says have died in street protests since 12 February. The declaration offered ‘full support’ for a government peace initiative that the opposition has refused to join until dozens of jailed protesters and an opposition leader are freed. Twenty-nine countries voted in favor of the declaration after 15 hours of debate spread over two days.

For now though, with further sanctions against Venezuela, dwindling oil prices, and given that Saudi Arabia claims it’s not cutting back on oil production (even if the price drops to $20 per barrel), it looks like the U.S. has loosened the screws on Havana but tightened them on Caracas. Add to this the fact that the Maduro administration itself has been slow to get on top of the currency crisis, as recently noted by a key expert on Venezuela, Latin America in 2015 may be in for several surprises.

Posted on January 14, 2015 .