After a third round of negotiations between the US and Cuba, held surreptitiously in Havana on March 16, ended only a day after they started, diplomats from both sides refrained from talking to the press. That didn’t stop Cuba’s octogenarian dictator Raul Castro from publicly denouncing America for its tough stance on another brutal Latin American government–Venezuela–and suggesting that the current diplomatic failure is linked to recent American sanctions against top Venezuelan leaders.
The situation in Venezuela is quickly spiraling into chaos. Since President Nicolas Maduro took office in 2013, prices, scarcity, corruption, and political turmoil have all soared. The arbitrary and autocratic nature of the Venezuelan presidency, already inherited from Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, is again a daily reality. Pressure on independent media, incarceration of prominent opposition leaders (such as the mayor of Caracas), together with a heavy police and military presence in the streets are proof that Maduro’s regime has by now turned into a dictatorship.
Where is Venezuela learning its dirty tricks? The usual suspect in Latin America: Cuba, which has the bizarre honor of being home to the longest-surviving dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. Since Chavez was first elected president in 1999 ties between Venezuela and Cuba have become progressively tighter. By now Cuban presence in Venezuela is widespread—there are Cuban advisors in the immigration service, the national telecommunication company, and the Interior Ministry. Perhaps most importantly there are Cuban “advisors” in Venezuela’s military, including at the highest levels. In 2009 a liaison group between the two nations’ armed forces was created. Venezuela’s previous war model had been based on American military doctrine, but changed to more closely resemble Cuban military strategy, emphasizing protracted guerilla war. Approximately 400 military advisors from the island nation give assistance to the Venezuelan presidential guard.
Even the presidential “war room”—a high-tech command center used to thwart popular uprisings and repress grassroots movements—is run by Cubans. That would also explain the presence of a special group of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces called the “Black Wasps,” who are helping Maduro crush protests in the streets. Venezuela’s Intelligence Agency is managed by Cuba’s military attaché. And Cuban military and intelligence advisors were sent to the Ministry of Interior and Justice, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, and various military units.
All this points to the entrenched influence of Castrist elements in Venezuela’s armed forces and, worse, the top spheres of Venezuela’s government. And as Maduro is much less charismatic and beloved than Chavez, as well as lee efficient and more authoritarian (which is no small accomplishment), his reliance on the military and the security forces is also more important to his staying in power. Therefore one tyranny reinforces another. Unfortunately the Cuban government knows only too well how to keep dissidents and demonstrators suppressed; it continues to export its tactics in order to prop up the moribund dictatorship next door, with which it shares an affinity for repressive politics and anti-American sentiment.
That’s the reason why, after the US announced sanctions on Venezuelan officials on March 9, Cuba brought the topic of its authoritarian comrade to the negotiating table. Specifically, Havana wants Washington to lift its recent sanctions against a group of Venezuelan officials accused of being a threat to US interests. Although it may seem strange for the Castros to jeopardize negotiations with the US—which promise to pay benefits while requiring almost nothing in return—the current demands on behalf of the Venezuelan administration show just how far the regime in Cuba is willing to test the Obama administration’s resolve. The US delegation, to its credit, have seemed to indicate that not everything is “on the table,” and that the issue of human rights in Venezuela will not be allowed to muddy the waters of political negotiations with Cuba.
It remains to be seen if American diplomats will state the obvious: the regime they are now negotiating so openly with bears responsibility for repression and violence not just in its own country, but throughout the region.