Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attended a gala for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday along with Cuba's President Raul Castro in Havana in August 2016. (Ismael Francisco/AP)

Before he fled Venezuela last year, Lt. Col. Carlos Jose Montiel Lopez sometimes felt like he was serving in another country’s army. 

His superiors in a military engineering unit were trained in Cuba, and a Cuban officer led his class on tunnel construction, Montiel said in an interview. The underground passages his brigade built in northern Venezuela — part of a plan to counter a possible U.S. invasion — were inspected by Cubans. 

“They were dressed in civilian clothing, but we would call them by their military rank: mi comandante, mi general,” said Montiel, a stocky 43-year-old who now lives in Miami and is seeking U.S. asylum. The training manuals the Venezuelans used, he said, came from Cuba and Cubans were “our supervisors and decision-makers.”

Cuba, according to the Trump administration, is the main reason President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, two months after the United States recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president and began imposing some of the world’s harshest sanctions on Maduro’s government.

“No nation has done more to sustain the death and daily misery of ordinary Venezuelans, including Venezuela’s military and their families, than the communists in Havana,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month.

Holding Cuba responsible for Venezuela’s misery and Maduro’s endurance has proved serendipitous for President Trump’s foreign policy and domestic political aims.

Florida, seen as a must-win state for his 2020 reelection prospects, has the largest concentration of Cuban Americans and Venezuelan expatriates in the United States, many with deep pockets and leaning Republican. Some of them sense a moment to do in Venezuela what the United States never could in Cuba: Bring down the government. At the same time, success in Venezuela could deeply weaken Cuba’s communists.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand U.S.-Venezuela policy without understanding Cuba and the half-century drive to change the regime in Havana,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “Their calculation is that change in Venezuela will effect change in Cuba.”

Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, were cheered when they denounced Maduro and his Cuban backers in speeches delivered in Miami in recent months. Bolton and Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both longtime advocates of ridding Cuba of its communist government, have found a new avenue via Venezuela.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), also a Cuban American with a significant Cuban constituency and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, usually has little good to say about Trump’s foreign policy. Venezuela, he said, “shouldn’t be about domestic politics.”

“But I think it would be naive not to recognize that bad actors are keeping Maduro on a lifeline. It’s Russia,” which has long provided cash in exchange for part ownership of Venezuela’s oil resources, “and it’s the Cuban regime,” Menendez said. “There’s no question that their security apparatus is fully engaged in Venezuela, at Maduro’s request.”

Following reports last weekend that two Russian military aircraft, carrying about 100 troops, a senior officer and tons of military material, landed in Caracas, Pompeo called his Russian counterpart Monday to demand Moscow not interfere there. Pompeo told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the United States “will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions.”

But most of the administration’s attention has been focused on Cuba, which it charges has 20,000-25,000 military and intelligence personnel embedded in the Venezuelan military and intelligence services, as well as Maduro’s personal guard.

The Cuban government has said that more than 20,000 Cubans are working in Venezuela, but that nearly all of them are doctors and teachers. In a news conference last month, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez strongly denied U.S. claims that Cuba maintained a “private army” in Venezuela, and accused Washington of using the “pretext” of a humanitarian crisis that its sanctions helped cause to prepare for “a military aggression” against Venezuela.

Even without blaming Cuba, Trump’s pressure on Maduro — whose corrupt and oppressive governance has left millions of people starving and without access to health care, clean water or even electricity — enjoys wide bipartisan support among lawmakers.

Elliott Abrams, the administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, points out that the humanitarian disaster began long before serious U.S. sanctions were imposed this year. Additional measures are on the drawing board.

“We think there will come a point at which the whole society will show its rejection of this regime even more strongly, that is, larger demonstrations, more people in the army saying this can’t continue,” Abrams said in an interview. 

So far, military defections have amounted to a steady trickle rather than a flood, particularly among senior officers, which has led the administration to increase its emphasis on Cuban responsibility.

“Why don’t more generals, let’s say, break with the regime?” Abrams said. “Why have there been no substantial breaks, departures from the country?”

Part of the reason, he said, may be because neither the opposition nor its foreign backers have fully convinced the military that they have a role in a post-Maduro Venezuela. “Maybe we have not said enough about amnesty.” 

But there is also fear of capture and reprisals, Abrams said, and “the Cubans are the enforcers” inside Venezuela’s security and intelligence services.

“They’re the ones who are hunting around for the slightest sign of disaffection. They’re the ones who literally torture you in prison. I really do think the nervous system of the regime, at this point, is substantially Cuban.”

Among those who have defected, some have pointed a finger at Cuba.

In a live video session from an unknown location, presented at the Organization of American States in Washington last week, Aviation Lt. Ronald Dugarte played what he said were secret recordings, made on his cellphone, of torture victims at military intelligence headquarters in eastern Caracas. 

Dugarte, who appeared in full uniform, said he deserted his military counterintelligence unit in late February. One of his jobs had been to detect opposition within the armed forces, he said, adding that his trainers were members of the “Cuban intelligence militia.”

Among the images he showed was a man he identified as Col. Mejias Laya, sitting on the floor of a bare cell, blindfolded with his hands shackled behind him. The prisoner, he said, had been held in that position for 30 days and was “brutally tortured.”

Gen. Antonio Rivero, a senior member of the Venezuelan military who turned against Maduro and fled the country in 2014, said in an interview that Venezuela’s military strategy had been transformed by Cuban advisers into that of a “prolonged asymmetrical war” against a new enemy: imperialism.

A training course he attended in November 2008, Rivero said, was led by a Cuban general who insisted that everything discussed should be considered a “state secret . . . Here was a foreigner telling me what was and what wasn’t a state secret.”

Unlike its shoot-from-the-hip tendency on many foreign policy issues, the Trump administration began a measured diplomatic effort to let other countries in the region take the lead in opposing Maduro’s reelection after a flawed national vote last May. The United States remained nominally outside a coalition of leading Western Hemisphere countries, the Lima Group. Formed in 2017 to mediate the Venezuelan crisis, it condemned Maduro’s continuation in power as illegal. 

When Maduro was inaugurated in January, it was the 14 Lima Group countries — including Canada — that first said they would not recognize his government. They, along with the administration, subsequently recognized Guaidó as interim president, by virtue of a vote in Venezuela’s opposition-controlled Legislative Assembly.

Some Latin American governments have come to share the administration’s contention that Havana is calling the shots in Caracas — particularly as several large countries such as Colombia and Brazil have swung to the right in recent elections. Previous governments in those places, and in the United States, ignored the growing crisis in Venezuela, one senior Latin American official charged.

“They left a mess,” said the official, whose country has been inundated with Venezuelan refugees. “They didn’t do a thing when things went south.”

But Lima Group declarations have never mentioned Cuba.

Canada, which has been in the forefront of the group, is “aware that there’s a Cuban presence” in Venezuela, said a Canadian official, “but our focus is very much on Venezuela, trying to support the restoration of democracy . . . As far as I know, we have not been in the business of going out there and naming and shaming others,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by his government.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump blamed the “socialist Maduro regime” for tragedy in Venezuela, and made only glancing reference to Cuba as a puppet master.

In November, however, Bolton designated Venezuela, Cuba and left-wing Nicaragua as a “troika of tyranny” that was spreading the “destructive forces of oppression, socialism, and totalitarianism.”

His Miami speech coincided with the administration’s decision to appoint a special envoy, a job initially envisioned as coordinating policy toward all three members of the “troika.” That plan was dropped by the time of Abrams’s January appointment, but the insistence that Venezuelan-style, Cuban-spread “socialism” is a Democratic goal for the United States has already become a prominent Trump campaign trope.

The decades-old U.S. drive to oust Cuba’s ruling communists was interrupted by the Obama administration, which reestablished diplomatic ties with Havana and lifted some economic restrictions. It has come roaring back under Trump. Although embassies remain open in both capitals, diplomatic representation has been sharply cut and new restrictions on American travel and economic relations have been imposed.

Rubio said it “goes too far” to call the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy a proxy war against Cuba, insisting it is based on fears of a broader crisis in a region already struggling to cope with massive flow of Venezuelans fleeing their collapsing homeland. While millions have crossed into neighboring Colombia and Brazil, at least 74,000 have applied for asylum in the United States.

But, Rubio said, “Cuba is a big part of this, in terms of their support for the regime” in Venezuela.

A staunch Cold War ally of the United States, Venezuela quickly shifted when Chavez, a career military officer who was jailed for a coup attempt and later pardoned, won the 1999 presidential election on a platform of social reforms for the poor.

Chavez found a mentor in Cuba’s Fidel Castro, whose state-run economy was suffering from U.S. sanctions and the demise of the Soviet Union, its longtime patron. After surviving a coup attempt in 2002, Chavez welcomed Cuban intelligence and military assistance — as well as doctors and teachers — in exchange for free and subsidized oil. Under Maduro, who took over after Chavez died in 2013, the shipments eventually reached about 100,000 barrels per day.

Although it does not have the power to implement its orders, the Legislative Assembly under Guaidó declared a state of emergency after electrical blackouts earlier this month and ordered the suspension of all oil exports to Cuba, saying that Venezuela’s resources were needed to “resolve the crisis.” Guaidó asked for “international cooperation” to implement the order, and Bolton said in a tweet that “insurance companies and flag carriers that facilitate these giveaway shipments to Cuba are now on notice.”

Some have questioned the administration’s estimate of 20,000 to 25,000 Cuban military and intelligence agents in Venezuela. Asked about the number, Abrams said that, in addition to U.S. intelligence assessments, “it’s an amalgam of impressionistic evidence and real evidence.”

“Just as an example,” he said, “how do we know that Maduro’s security people are Cuban? When they go to the U.N., they have to ask for visas.” Overall, he said, the numbers “are not scientifically derived. They’re from estimates of, well, how many are there in this organization, how many are in that organization? How many are outside Caracas? How many are with the army? ”

William Brownfield, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Chavez government and, until the fall of 2017, as assistant secretary of state in charge of international law enforcement and counternarcotics, said that “my own guess would be a quarter to half” of the administration’s estimate.

“But even if off by 50 or 75 percent, it is an astonishingly high number,” he said. “The other half of the story is that these guys are literally in the chain of command.”

“It was already beginning in my time,” Brownfield said, but “obviously not nearly as advanced as it is today.”

As he departed Caracas for the last time as ambassador in 2007, he said, a Venezuelan official at the airport handed his passport to a Cuban to check. “I knew . . . because he had a little pin on his lapel” with Cuban and Venezuelan flags. 

Faiola reported from Caracas and Miami.