President Obama, Please Don’t Forget About Venezuela

President Obama’s visit to Cuba last week was rightly hailed as historic. Indeed, in time it may prove a watershed in relations between Washington and Havana. However, little is likely to change overnight. And so the long-term process of evolving bilateral relations is a golden opportunity to engender reform in Cuba and beyond. While much has been made of Obama’s visit to the Communist island, it is vital to remember that Cuba is not an isolated Communist state in Latin America. Venezuela remains Cuba’s closest ally and at the same time one of the region’s most repressive regimes. Venezuela’s stubborn leadership has overseen a dramatic economic collapse which leaves the country on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. But it can be avoided through determined pressure from inside and outside. In short, American normalization with Cuba must be dependent on pressuring Venezuela’s government for change.

Holding court in a grand theater, Obama told the Cuban people “It is time to leave the past behind” before being feted at an exhibition baseball game alongside the country’s leaders. However, few in the outside world will have realized that Cuba gave a similarly enthusiastic welcome to another regional leader just days beforehand. Venezuela’s President Maduro dominated the Cuban media when he arrived in Havana, where he was awarded Cuba’s highest state honour. There is no mistaking the message from Cuba – A shift in relations with Washington may be important, but it doesn’t trump the alliance with its Venezuelan comrades. Indeed, ahead of signing agreements to increase Cuba-Venezuela commercial and economic ties, Raul Castro pledged“unconditional loyalty” to “the Bolivarian revolution and the civil-military union of the Venezuelan people led by President Maduro.”

Such fraternal allegiance should come as no surprise. Cuba and Venezuela are two kindred Communist spirits, shaped by authoritarian regimes. While Obama raised some concerns over Cuba’s human rights record, he must not ignore the absence of freedoms in Venezuela, where Castro’s allies have routinely jailed opposition leaders on trumped-up charges. Although the opposition controls Venezuela’s parliament, real power resides with a judiciary dominated by Maduro loyalists. Meanwhile, popular protest has been ruthlessly suppressed. Demonstrations in 2014 were met by live fire and severe beatings by police and soldiers, leaving at least 40 dead and around 650 injured. And the country’s media has been cowed into parroting the government, with more than 1,000 websitesblocked in 2014 alone.

The Obama Administration knows that a shift in relations with Cuba couldreap rewards across Latin America. Yet, Washington must be in no doubt that the most pressing regional issue right now is Venezuela. It is a country in crisis. Not only is there an absence of democracy and civil rights, but President Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have brought the country to the brink of financial ruin. Utterly reliant on oil-rich natural resources, they neglected to develop any alternative productive industry. And so with oil prices having dramatically slumped, the economy is teetering on the edge of total collapse. Hyperinflation is expected to reach an eye-watering 720 per cent, leaving ordinary Venezuelans with a worthless currency. Not that there is much to purchase, as people wait in line for hours on end for basics such as milk and flour. Life-saving medicines are also in desperately short supply. The country’s pharmaceutical federation estimates that 90 per cent of drugs are scarce. Rather than take responsibility for an unfolding humanitarian crisis, Maduro instead blames fictional “economic warfare” by opponents, including the United States.

With the country on the brink of disaster and internal opposition muzzled, international pressure remains the most realistic avenue for change. As Venezuela’s economic reality becomes increasingly desperate, Maduro will find himself inevitably looking towards foreign sympathy and financial generosity. Who better to exert pressure on Maduro than Venezuela’s closest ally and partner, Cuba? The United States now finds itself in the perfect position to leverage such a scenario by making normalization with Cuba dependant on reform in Venezuela. Not only would a strong stance from Washington bring hope to Venezuelans, but it would send an important message to the wider region. It would demonstrate American commitment to a free, safe and prosperous Latin America. The timing could hardly be better, with the region in flux. While recent elections in Argentina and Bolivia indicate a rejection of obstructionist hard left ideologues, plenty of challenges remain, with Brazil engulfed in a corruption scandal at the highest levels and peace still in the balance in Colombia.

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