@CrisisGroup “By making it clear that, once the #US has dealt with Maduro, their next objective is Cuba, they eliminate any incentive Cuba might have for contributing to a sustainable transition in Venezuela”, @philgunson told the @NewYorker
Amid the barrage of breaking news in the ongoing Trump scandals, one overlooked story is that of Cuba, which is experiencing severe fuel shortages and other difficulties, owing to sanctions levied by the Trump Administration. On September 28th, Sarah Marsh, a Reuters correspondent in Cuba, uploaded a video to Twitter. The thirty-second clip, shot on her phone from a moving car, shows vehicles stalled on a roadway: trucks, buses, modern taxis, and vintage nineteen-fifties Chevys and Studebakers in a line that appears to be half a mile long. All of them were waiting for gas. Marsh tweeted, “So I thought the fuel situation in #Cuba had improved somewhat, until I passed this multi-hr queue for diesel on the highway. This is only a fragment of what I filmed.”
Cuba’s energy shortage has begun to affect life on the island in a wide variety of ways. A week before Marsh posted the video, she reported that the government had urged its citizens to save fuel during daylight hours, warning that its supply was inadequate to cover the island’s needs for the month. Air-conditioning had been shut off in public buildings, while schools and universities had cut back on school hours, and some public-sector workers were told to stay home, because of a lack of fuel for public transportation. Oxen were replacing tractors in fields; wood was being used to fire ovens in state-run bakeries, and a number of factories had either cut back on production or shut down altogether.
Why is this happening? Look to the White House. After failing to help bring down the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela—through economic sanctions and by abetting various military plots and an attempted uprising, in April—the Trump Administration has turned its attention to Cuba, which it blames for Maduro’s survival. The Venezuelan and Cuban governments have indeed been allies since Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro forged close ties, two decades ago, in agreements through which Cuba received regular shipments of subsidized Venezuelan oil and, in exchange, Cuba dispatched tens of thousands of doctors, teachers, and sports instructors to work in Venezuela’s slums and rural hinterlands. That arrangement continues today, but Venezuela’s calamitous economic decline of the past four years—which is worse than that experienced by the United States during the Great Depression and has led to a humanitarian crisis and an exodus of more than four million people from the country—has also had an adverse effect on Cuba. The island does not produce much more than a third of the roughly hundred and forty-five thousand barrels of oil that it needs each day. Since 2000, Venezuela has made up the shortfall, providing as much as a hundred and five thousand barrels a day. But, since the economic crisis began in earnest, its shipments have fallen steadily, averaging about fifty-five thousand barrels a day this year. (Venezuela’s oil production is estimated to have dropped from 2.5 million barrels a day, in 2015, to between six hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand.) The Cuban presence in Venezuela remains intact, by all accounts, and has sparked controversy, with the U.S. government regularly accusing Cuba’s military and intelligence services of having thousands of personnel in the country.
In frustration, the Trump Administration has been escalating sanctions that target, among other things, the oil shipments. In January, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, P.D.V.S.A., prohibiting any U.S. firms from doing business with it in cases where Maduro could directly access the payments. It also seized the assets of the U.S.-based Venezuelan oil company CITGO, and sanctioned a number of banks involved in Venezuelan financial transactions. In separate orders, issued in April, the sanctions were expanded to include oil-shipping companies, vessels, and ship owners, some of which were involved in transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba. In July, Cubametales, Cuba’s oil-import-and-export company, was also placed under sanctions. Venezuela used several of its own vessels, instead of the usual foreign-flag carriers, to get emergency shipments to Cuba, but, given its own problems, such measures are probably not sustainable in the long term.
Conditions are likely to get more difficult for both countries. In July, the International Monetary Fund predicted that Venezuela’s economy would contract thirty-five per cent further this year. In August, Trump decreed a total embargo against Maduro’s regime and authorized secondary sanctions against “any persons” assisting it, leading the way for potential actions against Chinese and Russian interests, both of which have joint ventures with Venezuela in its energy sector and are Maduro’s main creditors. When the measure was announced, John Bolton, who was Trump’s national-security adviser at the time, said that the new embargo against Venezuela, together with the long-standing one against Cuba, would ultimately bring down both regimes. “It worked in Panama, it worked in Nicaragua once, and it will work there again, and it will work in Venezuela and Cuba,” he said.
Bolton was mistaken about the success of previous embargoes, though. His Panama reference was an apparent allusion to the 1989 ouster of the dictator Manuel Noriega, but Noriega was toppled by a U.S. military invasion, not sanctions. Nicaragua was also subjected to sanctions in the years after the Sandinista revolution, of 1979, and, in 1990, President Daniel Ortega was voted out of office. But during those years the government was also fighting a war against the U.S.-backed Contras. (Ortega has been back in power since 2007, and his government is again under U.S. sanctions, as punishment for repressive behavior, including a violent 2018 crackdown on pro-democracy activists.) As for the U.S. embargo against Cuba, it has been in place since 1962, and the regime remains in power, led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a Communist Party loyalist in his late fifties who last year succeeded Raúl Castro in office.
There is, then, nothing to suggest that U.S. sanctions alone will be successful in bringing down Maduro. It seems just as likely that more Venezuelans, increasingly worn down by the penuries and uncertainties of life in their country, will simply join their fellow-citizens who have already fled in what has become the second-largest displacement of a nation’s population in the world, after Syria’s. The United Nations has predicted that, by the end of this year, 5.3 million Venezuelans will have left. If that number continues to rise, the crisis may increasingly be seen as having an American trademark. Not long after the Trump Administration sanctioned Venezuela’s oil industry, a veteran American diplomat acknowledged that the prospect had him worried. “Up until now, the mess in Venezuela is Maduro’s own doing,” he said. “He owns it, he really does. But from now on it’s increasingly on us.”
Nevertheless, the hard-line tactics that Bolton championed seem set to continue. On September 12th, two days after Trump fired Bolton, Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator from Florida, who has been a key adviser to Trump on policy toward Cuba and Venezuela, tweeted his prediction that President Trump would remain tough on both nations. Afterward, Trump retweeted his agreement, saying, “My views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” As some evidence of that, Bolton’s archconservative director of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Mauricio Claver-Carone, has remained in his post. Claver-Carone is a Cuban-American lawyer who, for years before his current job, was a pro-embargo Capitol Hill lobbyist.
Then, on September 26th, the State Department announced sanctions against the former Cuban President Raúl Castro and his four children, including Alejandro Castro Espín, who had been his personal emissary in the secret talks that led to the historic 2014 diplomatic breakthrough with the Obama Administration. In a statement, the State Department blamed the Castros for their efforts to “prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation and repression.” (Maduro, of course, is still in office, but, since January, when Trump formally recognized Juan Guaidó, an opposition congressman, as the legitimate interim President of Venezuela, the U.S. government has referred to Maduro as the “former” President.) The State Department went on to accuse the Castros of being “complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” though it offered no evidence to back up the accusation.
Ben Rhodes, a former Obama aide who helped conduct the negotiations with Castro Espín, wrote in an e-mail that “having actually dealt with Cubans instead of simply sanctioning them, it became clear to me that Raúl and his family are capable of pragmatism, and any sincere diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis in Venezuela should include them. Instead, Trump is posturing for hard line voters in Florida heading into an election year, and making things worse for Cubans and Venezuelans.”
The International Crisis Group’s Venezuela expert, Phil Gunson, who lives in Caracas, agreed with Rhodes’s assessment. “The Trump Administration has it backwards when it comes to the linkage between Venezuela policy and Cuba policy,” he told me. “By making it clear that, once they have dealt with Maduro, their next objective is Cuba, they eliminate any incentive Cuba might have for contributing to a sustainable transition in Venezuela. And by defining the objective not as the promotion of democracy so much as the elimination of socialism, they alienate many other potentially useful allies.”
Last week, a former senior State Department official told me that not only are the sanctions likely to fail but they may well push Cuba back toward Russia and China. “The Administration is still stuck in an updated version of the strategy toward Cuba of maximum pressure, which has failed for sixty years, and they believe that, when Venezuela goes down, Cuba will follow,” the official said. “They are connecting dots they believe are linear, and they are not. Presumably, Mauricio Claver-Carone believes the growing difficulties on the island prove his approach is working, and will make the Cubans bend. I don’t think they will. It will just bring Russia and China further in, among others.” He added, “Yes, Fidel, the salesman-in-chief, is gone, but national pride remains a strong force.”
During last month’s fuel crisis, President Díaz-Canel went on television to reassure Cubans. He told them that, despite the shortages, he did not contemplate having to institute rolling electrical blackouts, such as those that were commonplace during what became known as the Special Period—the years of misery in the nineteen-nineties that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main Cold War sponsor. If blackouts do become necessary, he said, they would not be as prolonged or as frequent, and Cubans would be given plenty of advance warning. He said, “I can assure you that we have a strategy to succeed, and the Yankee administration will not achieve its aim of disheartening the Cuban people, and much less vanquishing it.”
Such assurances, along with the new austerity measures, will have an unwelcome “Groundhog Day” quality for those Cubans who lived through the Special Period. Back then, as most vehicular traffic ground to a halt, Cubans rode bicycles, walked, or hitchhiked to get to their destinations. As food became scarce, people became underweight, undernourished, and susceptible to disease. Social tensions soared, and, by the late summer of 1994, thousands of Cubans rioted in Havana, spurring la crisis de los balseros, or the rafters’ crisis, in which more than thirty-five thousand Cubans took to the sea on improvised rafts to get to the United States. It is believed that hundreds may have died attempting the voyage.
The island’s economic stagnation and lack of opportunity have continued to spur an outflow of Cubans seeking better lives, especially young people. Some still try to leave on makeshift boats and rafts, but they are much fewer in number than those who have been setting out on what are perhaps even more precarious journeys through Latin America, toward Mexico. Many thousands of Cubans are now stuck in grim backwaters south of the U.S. border, caught out by an end to the immigration laws that previously granted Cubans automatic asylum if they reached U.S. soil, and by the Trump Administration’s crackdown on migrants in the region.
Adding to the pressures, the Trump Administration stopped issuing immigrant visas for Cubans at its Havana Embassy in 2017, obliging Cubans wishing to apply for visas to travel two thousand miles to Guyana, the former British colony in South America. In March of this year, the State Department also halted the tourist visas that had previously allowed Cubans who could afford them to come and go from the U.S. during a five-year period. And ICE has begun to target undocumented Cubans in roundups; a single flight from New Orleans to Havana last month carried a hundred and seventy Cuban deportees, with federal authorities promising many more such flights to come. In addition, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently announced a thousand-dollar cap every three months on the previously unlimited amount of money that Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island. (The cap went into effect on October 9th.) Taken together, the new strictures seem unmistakably aimed at creating further hardship on the island.
In the spring, Mnuchin also announced that the government would permit Cuban-Americans and U.S. corporations with outstanding Cuban property claims to sue for damages and financial restitution for property losses that followed the 1959 revolution. One of the lawsuits filed was filed by José Ramon López Regueiro, a Cuban-American living in Miami who is the son of the man who owned Havana’s international airport before Castro nationalized it, at the start of the revolution. The suit alleges that American Airlines and the Chilean holding company Latam Airlines Group have been benefitting from the use of the airport without Regueiro’s permission, and, according to his lawyer, they must pay him the estimated value of the airport times three—something in the region of three billion dollars. More than fifty other airlines also use the airport, and Regueiro’s lawyer has sent out warning letters to them, too. ExxonMobil has also filed a claim, for two hundred and eighty million dollars, the estimated value of its oil facilities in Cuba, which were confiscated six decades ago.
Last month, a Swiss bank, PostFinance, halted its payment transactions to its clients in Cuba. It is one of many international banks that have done so recently, due to the stepped-up threat of retaliation by the U.S. government for violating its Cuba sanctions, under which it reserves the right to sue any international financial institution that is involved in Cuba and also uses the U.S. banking system.
Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, arrived in Cuba last Thursday, for a two-day state visit. After a meeting in which he and Díaz-Canel reportedly discussed ways to expand the “strategic partnership” between their nations, the Cuban leader announced his intention to travel to Moscow later this month to meet with President Vladimir Putin. Medvedev blasted U.S. policy toward Cuba, which he said exhibits “an obvious trend to create a toxic atmosphere around economic cooperation with Cuba, to warn off investors, as well as to start an energy blockade. Cuba’s experience resisting the blockade for nearly sixty years shows that this policy will fail.” Medvedev inspected a joint Russian-Cuban oil well, and promised help in finding new ways for Cuba to overcome its energy crunch. He also paid a visit to El Capitolio, which was built in the nineteen-twenties to house Cuba’s Congress and resembles the U.S. Capitol. The purpose of Medvedev’s tour was to admire the gold work on the dome, which was recently restored, thanks to Russian financing.