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Trump's Venezuela policy: Cubans to the Left, Cubans to the Right

Cubans are playing a key role in the Venezuelan crisis, on both sides.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.

President Trump is bringing the Venezuela road show to Miami on Monday in an attempt to keep the pressure on Nicolas Maduro. He will no doubt repeat his State of the Union dig at Democrats, when he raised the specter of socialism in that long-suffering country and linked it to his domestic political opposition.

"Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country," the president said in his speech to Congress. "Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country," he added.

The truth is, Maduro is an old-fashioned corrupt dictator. He's not a Marxist nor a socialist. But it's a message that plays well, especially in Cuban Miami.

Maduro, his military high command and political cronies have unleashed state terrorism against the democratic opposition. Venezuelans suffer appalling levels of depravation as a result of economic mismanagement and regime corruption.

Sensing opportunity in a Made-in-Venezuela constitutional strategy of restoring democracy, last month the United States worked to recognize immediately National Assembly President Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president.

The U.S is now taking the lead on stacking desperately needed humanitarian assistance along Colombia’s border with Venezuela. In addition to being just what it looks like, the aid is also a multilaterally coordinated effort to persuade the Venezuelan military to break with the Maduro regime. The not-so-subtle message to the troops and mid-ranks is “get on the right side of history with the Guaido government and your own suffering families.” It is a gambit without a guarantee, but a creative one.

Encouragingly, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, the wily Elliott Abrams, has all but taken a U.S. military invasion option off the table, while dutifully engaging in the theater of public diplomacy and insisting “all options remain on the table.” That's good Diplomacy 101 and no points should be deducted for purposeful obfuscation. My reading between the lines: the Marines aren’t hitting the beaches of Maiquetia anytime soon.

So now speculation shifts to how long can Maduro hold on. I certainly don’t know, and I suspect no one really does. However, if and when there is a denouement to the Venezuelan crisis, one bet I will make is that Cubans and Cuban-Americans will be major players.

The nexus between Havana and Caracas has long been known and studied. Hugo Chavez was a Fidel favorite, although Raul and others in Cuba’s leadership found him to be a pompous ass. But the ass came with a lifeline in the form of PetroCaribe. According to, an on-line oil and gas industry source, in the mid-2008 at the height of Chavez’ power, Venezuela’s black gold fetched over $130 a barrel. Cuba received daily shipments of over 100,000 barrels per day for over a decade. It dedicated roughly half to running its own rickety electrical grid and meeting domestic petroleum needs and sold the rest in international markets.

In a fascinating psychological turnabout, Chavez was actually the “upper hand” as he held greater power in the Caracas-Havana relationship with PDVSA’s vast reserves at his command, yet Fidel always played lead between the two. In return for the concessional oil arrangement, the Cubans relied cynically on their greatest export as collateral: Cubans. Doctors, nurses, and teachers were dispatched on indentured servitude terms to staff chavismo’sfamous barrio missions. These social action plans represented genuine government service delivery to populations that had never received much from Venezuela’s democratic administrations.

Yet along with Havana’s social service workers came a host of intelligence and security officials who burrowed into Venezuela’s security apparatus. For years there have been validated reports of Cuban commissars running ideological indoctrination sessions for Venezuelan police, military and para-military forces, and its dreaded spy agency, SEBIN. As the situation recently got worse, Cuba sent a detachment of 300 well-trained special forces to keep an eye on Maduro and his inner circle and ensure they don’t go wobbly under pressure.

But they aren’t the only Cubans playing in Venezuela. Offshore, opponents of the regime in Caracas living in exile in Miami have found champions in the Cuban-American community here and elsewhere in the United States. The two most public proponents of regime change in Venezuela are Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Representing the genuine bipartisan support the Trump administration currently enjoys on Venezuela, these two Spanish speaking, anti-Castro firebrands have either played right into Nicolas Maduro’s hands, as he mentions them frequently as being behind gringo invasion plans; or, more likely, they have lined up behind their principles (and electoral politics) and seek to do everything possible to make Trump’s policy of supporting Venezuela’s democratic opposition successful.

Rubio has placed a veteran anti-Havana congressional staffer at the helm of the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere shop, Mauricio Claver-Carone. He reports to an equally anti-Cuban government regime zealot and key decision maker, John Bolton. Another South Florida Cuban, John Barsa, is awaiting Senate confirmation as the Latin American honcho at the US Agency for International Development.

So far, so good. The stockpiling of American aid in Cucuta along the Colombia-Venezuela border, coupled with aggressive multilateral diplomacy with the Lima Group, the United Nations and the European Union, and a heightened sanctions regime are elements of a smart, tough policy. Undeniably, this strategy carries with it manifest risks, but it strikes the right balance between an invasion and the ad infinitem dialogue approach favored by the Obama administration.

The question beyond how long can Maduro hold onto power is, do the Cuban-Americans see Caracas as a destination or a waystation en route to regime change in Cuba?