The United States is weighing options to limit Russia and Cuba from meddling in Venezuela, perceived as a stumbling block in the pursuit of a solution to the political crisis in the country, a senior State Department official told the Miami Herald.
“It’s a main focus for the Department of State to get the Russians and the Cubans out of Venezuela,” the official said on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about U.S. policy.
Venezuela is facing a dramatic humanitarian crisis and a political standoff between leader Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the head of the opposition-led National Assembly who is now recognized by the United States and more than 50 countries as the legitimate interim president.
Guaidó’s call for a military and popular uprising against Maduro failed on April 30, after high ranking members of the government and the military, who were negotiating a transition government, abandoned the plan and backed Maduro.
The European Union and the Lima Group -- comprising Canada and 12 Latin American countries -- are pushing hard for talks between the opposition and the Maduro government. Members of both sides are now in Norway to explore a dialogue, and Canada is trying to get Cuba at the table.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was “working with the Cubans” to find a solution to the crisis. The United States is focused on exerting pressure on the island’s government to reassess its support for Maduro, the official suggested.
The State Department official said the administration will continue making the case to its allies of the need to put pressure on Cuba, which is believed to be providing security and counterintelligence support to Maduro. Cuba’s economy heavily relies on subsidized Venezuelan oil, through an agreement struck by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez when they were leaders.
“U.S. unilateral pressure will not be sufficient, but we are working very closely with our allies,” the official said about Cuba. “We need to focus much more on Cuba’s sponsorship of the Maduro regime,” the official said.
“We see Cuban military officers in Sebin (Venezuelan intelligence police), in the presidential guard, and we know they’re having a direct role in the intimidation of the players that were directly involved in these conversations” leading to the failed uprising. “It’s very challenging to decide to flip sides if you know you’re under Cuban surveillance.”
The Trump administration has already imposed more sanctions on Cuba. It tightened restrictions on travel and remittances to slash financial resources going to the Cuban military, and imposed sanctions on companies and vessels involved in carrying Venezuelan oil to the island.
In a historic policy reversal, the United States also allowed Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect. The controversial provision enables U.S. citizens to seek compensation in federal courts for properties confiscated by the Cuban government six decades ago, which could have a chilling effect on foreign investment in the country.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reached out on behalf of the Lima Group, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel made clear his government would support political talks only if Maduro was included. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland traveled to Cuba on Thursday to follow up on the negotiations.
“Canada, together with its partners in the Lima Group, hopes to find ways to work with Cuba to address the worsening political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela,” Freeland said onTwitter. “Had a frank discussion about this with my colleague Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla in Havana today.”
The United States has other policy options that it hasn’t used, including putting Cuba back in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Sanctions alone might not be enough incentive for the communist government to break its partnership with Maduro, especially since Guaidó vowed to cut oil supplies.
“This is where the Latin American countries come into play,” the official added. “The Brazilians, the Colombians, if they start taking action against Cuba, they start insinuating their relationships with Cuba will deteriorate by their continued presence (in Venezuela) then I think that changes the calculus for Cuba.”
Changes in perceptions of Cuba’s role and intentions in Venezuela have already been noticeable, and even countries with friendly relationships with Cuba, like Canada and some European countries, have already voiced criticisms of the Cuban government, the State Department official said.
Russia’s support of Maduro has also proved crucial in keeping him in power.
During the failed uprising last month, Pompeo had said the Venezuelan leader was ready to leave on a plane to Havana but “the Russians indicated he should stay.” Russia had signaled its strong support for Maduro’s regime by sending 100 more personnel to Venezuela in March. And so far, the Russian government has not suggested a change in position. A meeting between Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week showed the disagreements between the two governments again.
“We want every country that’s interfering in Venezuela to cease doing that,” Pompeo said in a joint press conference. Lavrov replied with a jab of his own: “The threats that we hear against Maduro government, threats that come from the mouths of official representatives of the U.S. administration and from Mr. Guaidó, who always mentions his right to invite military intervention from outside – this has nothing in common with democracy.”
“We are looking at additional pressure options there,” the State Department official said, referring to sanctions on Russia. “It’s something that is a major concern for us,” the official said. “We designated the Venezuela defense sector. That means those groups that are associated with the Venezuelan military, whether they’re Cuban, Venezuelan or Russian are now possible to be designated themselves, so we look at that as a potential avenue to implement more actions against the Russians.”
Recently, Pompeo also shared his concerns with the role of Russian companies in Venezuela, especially Rosfnet.
Pompeo accused the Russian state oil company of violating recent U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. He said the company was still buying oil from Venezuelan PDVSA, a claim Rosfnet denied. The Russian company is a major partner of PDVSA, which stills owes Rosfnet more than $2 billion in loans.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres