White House

Trump takes aim at Cuba, holds Havana responsible for Venezuelan crisis

The White House plan to turn up the pressure on Cuba for its role in what a senior administration official on Wednesday said was its efforts to subvert democracy in Venezuela and propping up President Nicolás Maduro.

The senior administration official said Maduro would be out of power if it wasn’t for the Cuban intelligence operatives who help him control restless Venezuelans and block efforts to replace him.

“The issue of Cuban involvement in Venezuela is a fact. It’s not a theory,” said the official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity per administration policy.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, will unveil more details on the work of Cuban operatives in Venezuela, but the senior administration official said the United States plans to ratchet up its pressure on Cuba, especially the Cuban military that assists with Venezuela’s intelligence and counterintelligence efforts.

The plans are just the latest example of how relations have cooled between the two former adversaries during the Trump administration after President Barack Obama and Cuban ruler Raul Castro sought to ease more than a half-century of hostility.

Soon after taking power, Trump unveiled new Cuba regulations that made it more difficult to visit and do business in Cuba.

Trump later kicked nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States and pulled many American diplomats from the US embassy in Havana after learning of the bizarre sonic incidents that left more than two dozen Americans and U.S. personnel experiencing headaches, hearing loss, and other mysterious ailments in Cuba.

Cuba has denied any responsibility. While the United States has not directly blamed the Cuban government for carrying out the attacks, U.S. officials said Cuba is responsible for ensuring the safety of diplomats while in Cuba.

“Information suggests our personnel were deliberately targeted,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The U.S. government is working diligently through an interagency process to determine the source of the attacks.”

Even before he joined the Trump administration, Bolton advocated for stronger restrictions against Cuba. In 2002, as undersecretary of state, he accused Havana of trying to develop biological weapons, and added Cuba to a list of “axis of evil” countries.”

‘’The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,’‘ Bolton said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, but the once powerful nation under Maduro’s leadership has plummeted into a deepening economic crisis amid rising inflation.

Trump appeared to signal the new pressure campaign during his speech to world leaders last month at the United Nations General Assembly when announcing new sanctions against Venezuelan leaders, while blasting the Maduro government and “its Cuban sponsors” for bringing misery to the Venezuelan people.

Cuba’s new leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, responded by charging that capitalism, and not socialism, increases inequality and poverty around the world.

The senior administration official said Wednesday that the United States government will also put more pressure on regional leaders to hold the Cuban government responsible for its role helping Maduro hold onto power. The region already knows it, the official said, but that it now “needs to talk about it.”

“I have yet to meet a regional diplomat who, when I’ve asked whether the Maduro government could sustain itself in power without Cuban control would say ‘yes,’” the official said. “That’s a powerful statement.”

There are some diplomats who appear to be paying attention. Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, charged that the some 22,000 Cubans had infiltrated the Venezuelan government working in security and intelligence services during a speech at the the United Nations Tuesday.

“They occupy important positions in several Venezuelan government agencies, and particularly in security services such as the Bolivarian Intelligence Services, “ Almagro said during the speech.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez