Hugo Chavez’s vision for Venezuela propelled a mass wave of popular support that encapsulated the South American dream for socialism – a government that took care of its outcast poor for the first time. Indeed, while his human rights, judicial records, and handling of the economy remain issues of debate, the one thing everyone can agree on about the legacy of Hugo Chavez is that he made the inclusion of the poor a continuing mission of his time in power.
Consider it a mark of how far Venezuela has fallen, then, that over the weekend of August 29th, an 80 year old pensioner in Chavez’s birthplace of Sabaneta was trampled to death in a melee of 5,000 plus hungry Venezuelans attempting to enter a supermarket. Where once the Venezuelan poor found their greatest hope they now find only empty shelves and a government more concerned with maintaining its fragile grip on power than on keeping them fed. It’s a mess that traditional policy tools in Washington seem powerless to address – but one which presents a promising opportunity to look to Cuba for new solutions.
Venezuela’s Woes Have Been A Long Time Coming
The melee in Sabaneta, while tragic, is but the latest symptom in a long, nauseating slide into sickness for Venezuela, an illness, which has been caused almost singlehandedly by the government of President Nicolas Maduro. It’s harder to find examples of what Maduro and his government have done right for Venezuela than to find examples of what it has done wrong. Gangsters and drug dealers run much of the government. The economy is in freefall – the bolivar has lost 70 percent of its value, price controls prevent stores from stocking basic staples, and the budget deficit has soared to 20 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With oil prices plunging Venezuela increasingly finds itself without its primary source of income. The Venezuelan government not only actively obscures economic reporting, but instead generates increasingly ridiculous alternative narratives for the country’s plight. Popular opposition leaders are jailed, teenagers are killed during protests, and comedians are shut down, while little birds appear to bestow the wisdom of Chavez on Nicolas Maduro and apparently also inform him of absurd Joe Biden plots to bomb the presidential palace.
This last claim is a Maduro favorite, according to a Colombian news station; Maduro has declared that he has defeated some 17 coups during his time in office, more than have actually taken place in the entire world during the same period. Perhaps these accusations would have more sticking power among South Americans, who certainly have had to deal with more than their share of American conspiracy in recent decades, if the incredible mismanagement of Maduro’s Venezuela wasn’t quite so readily apparent. But the fact of the matter is that aside from the economy Maduro’s “leadership” has failed abjectly in nearly every aspect of governance. Polls show that Maduro’s popularity is at 24 percent, with some 87 percent of Venezuelans responding that the situation of the country is poor.
The Venezuela-Columbia Border Crisis
Everyone enjoys a little good-natured CIA-conspiracy talk now and again. But Maduro’s desperate bid to retain a grip on power has transcended harmless nonsense and now threatens to seriously destabilize the region at large. Late in August, Maduro slammed shut the Venezuelan – Colombian border in the Táchira region, a curious area between the two countries where cross-border travel has always been effortless by South American standards. Because of the geographical ease of border crossing in the area, Táchira has long figured prominently in the smuggling black market that has allowed Venezuelans to survive Maduro’s economic house of cards. That fact alone makes it an obvious target for the regime to crack down on; but the recent forcible expulsion in late August of over 1000 Colombian nationals living in the region smacks of something more. The regime claims the crackdown followed on the heels of increasing violence by Colombian paramilitary groups, which Maduro recently blamed for an August 19th firefight that supposedly wounded three members of the Venezuelan armed forces. Some are already saying the move is designed to generate a crisis to distract public opinion – or worse, to create a security problem that might justify the Maduro’s ruling party putting off the upcoming parliamentary elections through a state-of-emergency declaration.
Whatever his rationale, Maduro has succeeded in creating a crisis. With families split up and thousands displaced, Colombia and Venezuela have recalled their ambassadors, with neither side offering a solution for the problem. Colombia has far more troubling issues to deal with, as its peace negotiations with the FARC taking place in Cuba have reached a standstill over the summer. As one of Washington’s closest – and only – South American partners in the wars on drugs and terrorism, the continued stability of Colombia is of crucial importance to American interests. Between the FARC threat and Maduro’s latest flying circus, that stability appears to increasingly be in jeopardy.
Why Cuba Can Help Defuse Venezuela’s Crisis
Throughout the complicated twists of the issue, one player appears at every turn: Cuba. As the host to the FARC-Colombia talks, it has historically been one of the few countries in the region with enough legitimacy to get both parties to the table. Additionally, it enjoys unprecedented influence over Venezuelan politics in general and over Maduro in particular. Cuba has long sent its vaunted medical and technical experts to Venezuela in exchange for deeply-discounted Venezuelan oil. After the 2002 coup against Chavez, however, the Venezuelan security apparatus was overhauled by Cuban intelligence, and in following years, Cuban intelligence and military personnel have come to dominate the security infrastructure. While proud Venezuelans increasingly view this interference as humiliating, it runs to the core of Maduro’s power base, which remain in favor of Chavez’s close ties with the nation of Che and Castro.
Cuban infiltration of the Venezuelan government is no proof that Havana has direct influence over Venezuelan policy. It is, however, one possible lever with which Maduro’s increasingly unstable rule can be manipulated. The recent thaw in relations between Washington and Havana seems to signal a long-overdue willingness on the part of the White House to engage with a regional leader despite a lack of a common history of cooperation. In the case of the Venezuelan crisis, this improved relationship between Cuba and the United States can be used to secure a positive end for US interests – stability on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and in the region at large – without the need to become directly involved in the minutiae of South American politics.
Direct US intervention, diplomatic or otherwise, would likely be largely unpopular among South Americans who can still remember the CIA’s Keystone Cops escapades of the 70’s and 80’s. Intervention by a regional leader who has long been considered one of the few legitimate nations capable of standing up to American meddling, however, would be a different matter. Lucky, then, that America has recently reopened relations with the one of the few actors, which might still retain some measure of influence over the increasingly desperate maneuverings of a totalitarian strongman.
While Maduro has long been protected by Cuba because of his docile behavior in maintaining the special relationship between the two countries, Cuba should have an even greater interest in maintaining a stable and reliable Venezuela than the United States. The sooner that Havana comes to the realization that Maduro is no longer a feasible part of that stable Venezuela, the better. With landmark elections on the way, Cuba has a unique window of opportunity to cement its influence with a successor party (influence the fragmented opposition could desperately use) while encouraging the Chavistas not to interfere with the process.
By engaging Cuba, Washington has a lot to gain and little to lose. In the worst case, consulting the Cubans on the issue would strengthen ties between the American and Cuban policy infrastructures, lending the benefit of Cuban experience and intelligence to American understanding of events in the region and tossing real weight behind Obama’s humbler American foreign policy. In the best case, asking Cuba to use its influence to persuade Maduro to allow the Venezuelan elections to go forward and to step down thereafter could result in a peaceful, democratic transition and the restoration of economic stability to a troubled people. In either case, America comes out looking like a responsible world leader – a concerned general practitioner consulting a specialist on a difficult diagnosis rather than attempting to solve the problem herself. Acting now costs little for America, but waiting until Maduro cancels the elections or foments a civil war threatens real costs down the road. The White House would do well to experiment with novel regional solutions before those costs become realized.