By Michael McCarthy
A backstory is emerging to Washington’s rapprochement with Cuba. In a moderately surprising development, the U.S. has opened a senior-level line of communication to the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro.
The U.S. and Venezuela have not had full, ambassador-level diplomatic relations since 2008. Commercial and immigration trends have kept the two peoples in constant contact but at the governmental level the two have gone from rivals who talked to adversaries who are estranged.
Why has Washington embraced a proposal to move beyond the resumption of diplomatic contact to explore the restoration of full diplomatic relations? A change in the geopolitical context seems to be a crucial part of the puzzle. In light of the headway being made by Washington and Havana, the U.S. engagement of the Maduro government is taking on greater meaning as a potential sign of a broader diplomatic push by Washington in South America.
The change in context is rather striking. In a different moment, talks between the U.S. and Venezuela might not have passed ‘Go.’ Think back to a year ago: the Maduro government attempted to signal genuine interest in improving relations with Washington. But that effort, which entailed Caracas naming a new Charge D’Affairs in Washington (the Venezuelan government’s outgoing ambassador to Brazil, Maximilien Sanchez Arvelaiz), fell flat.
Recent press accounts have shed light on why the Obama administration grew receptive to cooling tensions with the Maduro government, a necessary bromide after the White House imposed smart sanctions on seven Venezuelan government officials and foolishly deemed Venezuela’s situation a national security threat. Even more, these reports point to U.S. efforts aimed at diplomatically engaging on issues of mutual interest.
One account reported that the Obama administration’s talks with the Cubans opened the State Department’s eyes to the possibility of holding constructive conversations with the Venezuelans as well. Another account indicated that the U.S. has reoriented its posture towards Caracas because it fears instability in Venezuela, is concerned that jailed opposition leaders face real physical dangers, and wants to keep the country on an electoral path. Direct dialogue, argued the official source cited in the account, could be constructive in keeping Venezuela on some solid ground as it confronts a deep economic crisis.
It is also possible a strategic play is underway. Washington may have recognized it could reap the benefits of normalizing ties with Cuba, not only by removing the irritant of the embargo from its relations with the hemisphere, but by encouraging U.S. officials to analyze countries through a strategic, non-ideological lens.
Regardless of what motivated the U.S. to change, it seems Cuba is now a part of this puzzle. Quite frankly, that simply entails making an implicit reality an explicit one. Venezuela is a longtime ally of the Cuban government, beginning, arguably, with Chávez’s famous comment that Venezuela and Cuban were swimming together toward a “sea of happiness.” Former Presidents Chavez and Castro shared close personal ties and struck a game changing deal that saw Caracas and Havana exchange subsidized Venezuela oil for Cuban medial, technical, and intelligence assistance.
At his recent joint press conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Secretary Kerry noted that he discussed Venezuela “specifically” with his counterpart. Arguably, Kerry’s most interesting remark about Venezuela came when he noted, “the entire region [of Latin America] benefits if no one country is made scapegoat for the problems that exist inside a country.”
This is something of an historic observation. Critics on the right and the left have long accused the Cuban government of making Venezuela into a satellite state and the U.S. government of a single-minded policy or instigating regime change ever since Chavismo took power in 1999, respectively.
Kerry’s call to leave the mutual recriminations behind and tone down the rhetoric about foreign agendas in Venezuela did seem slightly incongruous. He said it in virtually the same breath as he referenced Venezuela being at the top of his agenda in discussions with Foreign Minister Rodriguez. This served as a sign not only that there is great concern in the international community about the low boiling political conflict between the Venezuelan government and opposition, but that mediating that conflict is likely to require international involvement from the key stakeholders.
Kerry did give individual attention to the bilateral talks with Venezuela. He said the U.S. will continue to make clear its differences and talk them through since, at the end of the day, the Obama administration wants “normal relations” with Caracas.
Indeed, doubts surfaced about whether U.S. engagement with Venezuela could reach the next level, moving past the cooling of tensions to a positive agenda. In June, the State Department came under Congressional criticism after Counselor Tom Shannon, the lead for engagement with Venezuela, held a meeting with Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s Parliament (and also a reported main target of a U.S. Justice Department investigation into narco-trafficking). The meeting took place in Port Au-Prince, where the U.S. and Venezuela are reportedly attempting to find areas of mutual unrest as that crisis-ridden country goes to elections slated for this Fall. The ultimate outcome of the encounter yielded an awkward photo of Shannon and Cabello — with Venezuela’s Foreign Minister and the Haitian Prime Minister — in a friendly embrace.
Maduro described the meeting’s upshot as the “opening of a very important diplomatic channel” between the two countries. The U.S. described these specific talks as “productive,” a comment that seemed to suggest the criticism of Shannon’s photo-op with Cabello was short-sighted since bigger issues were at stake.
More recently, critical commentary of Venezuela’s government from senior U.S. officials has irritated the Maduro government. The first came from U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a recent trip to Caracas. Sometime later, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen decried a politically concocted decision to ban opposition leader Maria Corina Machado from running for office. Machado, who is of a wealthy background, was accused of not declaring food stamps as part of her income.
More obstacles are likely to emerge as Venezuela shifts into election gear. Venezuela is in an economic crisis and parliamentary elections slated for December 6 pose a tough test for the Maduro government to turn the tide of public opinion in its favor. The election campaign is expected to feature highly aggressive political rhetoric.
The U.S. will be tempted to speak out, as has become custom amid the intensification of human rights problems in Venezuela. But the emerging sense one gets is that the Obama administration wants to find a new balance between realpolitik and crying foul, as it is attempting to do with Cuba.
Michael McCarthy is a research fellow for the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. He tweets at @macmac79.