Benjamin N. Gedan, a former South America director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, is a senior adviser to the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. Nicolás Saldías is a researcher in the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Cuba’s role in causing, or at least prolonging, Venezuela’s meltdown is subject to debate, but it is clear Havana has an outsized influence on Nicolás Maduro’s regime. It also has a lot at stake in Maduro’s political survival.
Cuba is heavily dependent on subsidized oil from Venezuela, receiving roughly 50,000 barrels daily despite Venezuela’s economic collapse and U.S. sanctions on its oil sector. In April, Venezuela produced only 768,000 barrels per day, down from 2.4 million when Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2013.
For Trump administration hawks, harming Cuba would be a welcome byproduct of regime change in Venezuela. Indeed, in a Miami speech in April to veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton predicted that “the walls are closing in” on Maduro and warned that “Cuba will be next.”
For others, however, Venezuela’s struggles offer a rare opportunity to engage productively with the Cuban dictatorship. After all, if its lifeline in Caracas is evaporating, perhaps Cuba might reconsider its other international relationships.
Recent economic struggles in Cuba reinforce this intriguing possibility. In part as a result of Venezuela’s crisis, Cuba is facing worsening shortages – including of staples such as rice, eggs and soap – that have rekindled fears of another “special period,” as it calls its rocky recovery from the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s.
Skeptics of any attempt to distance Cuba from Venezuela say Cuba’s connection to Venezuela is unshakable, shaped by history and ideology.
Fidel Castro mentored Chávez following his election in 1998, and the two leaders met frequently over the years. Their relationship deepened after a failed coup briefly ousted Chávez in 2002, leading him to depend increasingly upon the Cuban intelligence service and defense advisers. Today, it is not clear anyone could persuade Raúl Castro and Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to abandon Maduro, Chávez’s protégé.
Finally, Cuba, a repressive dictatorship, would be an imperfect ally to restore Venezuela’s democracy.
Nevertheless, given the potential significance of diminishing Cuba’s support for Maduro, a diplomatic push in Havana seems worth a shot. For that high-wire act, there is no better candidate than Canada, which is already playing an underappreciated role in addressing the Venezuela crisis.
Canada is well-placed to negotiate with Cuba. Diplomatic ties have historically been strong; Canada is one of only two countries in the hemisphere – including Mexico – to maintain uninterrupted relations with Cuba since the 1959 revolution.
In particular, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is uniquely positioned to engage the Cuban regime at the highest levels, given his family’s history with the Castros.
In 1976, during the period of Cold War détente, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s current prime minister, was among the first non-communist leaders to visit Fidel Castro. For Cuba, Trudeau’s visit was far more than a photo-op. It helped break the regime’s isolation and opened the door to deeper economic ties between the two nations. Decades later, when Canada arranged another high-level visit to Havana, in 1997, Cuba thanked Ottawa for rejecting the U.S. “policy of isolation and blockade.”
Even conservatives in Canada have generally opposed the U.S. embargo. In 1985, Canada’s Conservative majority government passed the Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act to protect Canadians doing business in Cuba. Following Trump’s announcement in April that he would enforce a section of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act permitting lawsuits against businesses operating in Cuba, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said she would “fully defend the interests of Canadians” investing on the island.
Cuba has not always been a source of division between Washington and Ottawa. When the United States, under President Obama, sought warmer ties with Cuba, it was Canada’s conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, who hosted secret negotiations between the two nations.
But today, Cuba is an area of open disagreement between neighbors. Even as Trump imposes limits on U.S. travel to Cuba, Canada remains Cuba’s top source of tourists. Last year, 1.1 million Canadians visited, providing the regime a vital source of hard currency. Canada is also a major provider of aid.
There are limits to Canada’s influence on the island. Over the years, a handful of Canadian businessmen have been imprisoned by the Cuban regime. In January, Canada sharply reduced its diplomatic presence in Havana after 14 of its diplomats and their relatives suffered from a mysterious illness. (Unlike the United States, whose personnel experienced similar symptoms, Canada did not allege “attacks” or blame Cuba for failing to protect foreign diplomats.)
Still, given the economic ties and the Trudeau family’s history with the country, Canada might be able to encourage Cuba to rethink its role in Venezuela. There are hints Canada is already playing this role.
In a press conference with Vice President Pence in Ottawa last week, Trudeau said: “Cuba can potentially play a very positive role in the wellbeing and the future stability of Venezuela.” Though at odds with the U.S. perspective, Trudeau’s position is consistent with the approach of the Lima Group, the coalition of Latin American governments and Canada established to resolve the Venezuela crisis.
Indeed, in early May, Trudeau called Diaz-Canel on behalf of the Lima Group, and the two discussed “ways they could work together to support a peaceful resolution to the crisis.” He could no doubt hold a similar conversation with Raúl Castro.
The window for Canada to engage Cuba might be closing. Polls ahead of the fall election show Trudeau’s government trails the Conservative Party, which might hesitate to jeopardize its relationship with Trump by courting Cuba.
Still, as Maduro’s domestic opposition and international adversaries repeatedly fail to push him out of office, it might be time to enlist the help of one of Maduro’s allies. Though turning Cuba against Venezuela is a long shot, Canada might persuade Cuba to play a more productive role in resolving the crisis.