Jorge G. Castañeda
After months of clashes with the security forces, street demonstrations in Venezuela have calmed down, but the economic and political crisis is far from over. The fraudulently elected National Assembly is drafting a new Constitution that will subordinate the judicial system and legislative bodies to the executive branch. The result will be a new dictatorship in Latin America — the first in decades.
Having grabbed virtually total power to govern at will, President Nicolás Maduro has wasted no time in jailing political opponents, resorting to torture and repression against students, and silencing the remaining critical news media outlets. Despite a humanitarian disaster leading his country’s citizens to lose on average up to 10 percent of their weight, to be told to eat pet rabbits and to flee abroad by the hundreds of thousands, Hugo Chávez’s successor refuses to step down.
Other countries in the region and the internal opposition must intensify their efforts to find a way out of the chaos. Talks in the Dominican Republic between officials from Mr. Maduro’s government and its opponents will not succeed by themselves. On Monday, President Trump hosted a dinner for the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Panama and the vice president of Argentina at which they agreed to continue working together to resolve Venezuela’s problems. They might achieve something, but only if another country is brought into the equation: Cuba.
Given Mr. Trump’s animosity toward the Cuban regime in his United Nations speech on Tuesday, when he said Washington will not lift sanctions on Havana until it makes reforms, it may seem an unlikely partnership. But both countries have real incentives to work together: Only the Cubans can ease Mr. Maduro and his henchmen from power, and only United States’ investment, tourism, trade and good will can allow Cuba to solve its serious economic problems. If Raúl Castro joins in, a deal could be struck, now or when the crisis takes another bad turn.
Mr. Maduro refuses to step down. While the government has scheduled regional elections for mid-October, Mr. Maduro is unwilling to call a presidential election next year, because he knows he will lose.
International pressure on Venezuela has increased. Latin American countries have made powerful statements against the regime, and the United States has imposed sanctions; the European Union may soon impose economic and visa sanctions.
But these measures alone are unlikely to bring about change in Venezuela, which makes the counterintuitive involvement of Cuba and the United States all the more attractive.
Why should Washington and Havana play a role in extricating Venezuela from the mess it is in?
First, Cuba has on occasion been helpful in key civil strife negotiations, most recently in Colombia’s peace agreement.
Second, the only external power with any real influence in Caracas is Cuba. With more than 40,000 Cuban doctors, teachers and intelligence and security personnel in Venezuela, the Havana government enjoys Mr. Maduro’s complete trust. He relies on it for his own security, to influence his allies and to control his rivals and adversaries. In exchange, Cuba is paid in hard currency for the human resources it provides along with subsidized, though decreasing, supplies of crude oil for Cuban consumption as well as for resale at a higher price to other countries.
In short, the Cubans are the only actors in this quagmire who can influence Mr. Maduro and persuade him to step aside. The opposition and the United States must be persuaded to grant Mr. Maduro and his closest cronies safe haven in Havana. This would prompt presidential elections in Venezuela and a reconciliation process with amnesty for all Venezuelans.
Why would Cubans push Mr. Maduro to leave? They know that though he has weathered the latest crisis, there are many more to come: debt default, slipping oil production and prices, unrest in the armed forces. Cuba has bet the store on other countries in the past and knows well that the results have not been great.
And Cuba has a huge problem just to its north with no visible solution: Donald Trump. With his election victory, Havana lost all of its contacts in Washington. Mr. Trump’s revisions of President Barack Obama’s executive actions to normalize relations with Havana are more fig leaves for Cuban-American legislators than actual threats to Cuba, but they are achieving a secondary effect: dissuading United States and European businesses from investing in Cuba. Cuba wants American tourists, but it needs certainty and continuity to attract investments that could make its economy grow. Without Mr. Trump, that is unlikely.
Is there room for a quid pro quo in all of this? Would Havana help ease out Mr. Maduro and facilitate the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy if Mr. Trump were to pursue Obama-style normalization? What if countries like Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico were to replace Mr. Maduro’s oil subsidies for a time and the tens of thousands of Cuban foot soldiers in Venezuela were to be guaranteed a gradual and safe return home? It’s hard to say, but everyone would benefit from such a deal, and none of the parties involved would lose excessively.
Venezuela has a lot to gain from a grand bargain including Cuba and the United States, but so do Cuba, the United States and the rest of Latin America. At the moment, it might seem naïve to think that Mr. Maduro and his allies would accept a deal in which he leaves power just as he appears to have consolidated it. But sometimes that is the best moment to reach an agreement. Venezuela’s situation is untenable, and the Cubans, who have been around forever, know that. Does Mr. Trump?