Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S., Cuba share common fear: chaos in Venezuela

If you ask me what was the most interesting thing that Secretary of State John Kerry told me in an interview last week, it wasn’t any of his statements about human rights in Cuba that made headlines, but his open admission that the United States and Cuba are talking about ways to solve the Venezuelan crisis.

During the interview, which took place in Washington shortly before his Aug. 14 trip to Havana, Kerry told me that the United States wants Venezuela to comply with Organization of American States inter-American human rights requirements, and that Venezuela’s upcoming Dec. 6 legislative elections take place with credible international observers.

When I asked Kerry whether the United States has discussed Venezuela’s political and economic crisis with Cuba during the two countries’ eight-month-old talks to normalize bilateral ties, Kerry nodded.

“Yes,” he responded. “We talked very specifically about America’s desire to have a relationship with the Venezuelan people that raises the ability of the people of Venezuela to be able to be protected, respected, represented and actually see their lives improve.”

Asked what was Cuba’s response, Kerry said that “they (the Cubans) did not make any promises. But, hopefully, they will represent (to Venezuela) that what we are doing with them now is beneficial, so why shouldn’t Venezuela also go the same road?”

In other words, the Obama administration has asked Cuba, which now has full diplomatic relations with the United States, to help convince Venezuela to normalize relations with Washington, and — this is my own interpretation of Kerry’s words — to release political prisoners and press Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to allow credible international observers during the December elections.

At first sight, the idea that the Obama administration would ask Cuba — a military dictatorship that has not allowed a free election in more than five decades — to help persuade Venezuela to hold free elections and uphold democratic principles sounds preposterous.

But if you think of it a little more closely, it makes sense. Both the United States and Cuba share a common interest in Venezuela, which is preventing that country from becoming a failed state, the term used by international diplomats to describe countries that descend into total economic and political chaos.

“The Cuban government has a lot of expertise in maintaining public order,” says Jorge Sanguinetty, a Cuban-American economist and author of “Cuba: present and future of the Cuban economy and Society,” after listening to the interview with Kerry. “They can help prevent Venezuela from becoming a failed state.”

Consider the dire consequences for both Cuban leader Gen. Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama if Venezuela — which already has the world’s highest inflation, Latin America’s lowest economic growth and one of the region’s top crime rates — falls into total chaos and becomes ungovernable.

For Cuba, it would mean an end of Venezuela’s massive oil subsidies to the island. While Venezuela’s economy is in shambles, its government still gives Cuba massive oil subsidies in exchange for political, security and economic advice, as well as for thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers.

For the United States, a failed state in Venezuela — without a central government able to maintain control over its territory — could result in Venezuela becoming a haven for Colombian terrorists and drug-traffickers, who could end up controlling their own territory there. That, in turn, could be a threat to the democratic stability of Colombia, and much of South America.

My opinion: Kerry didn’t go into more detail in our interview about his discussions with Cuba about Venezuela, but his admission that the United States and Cuba are talking about the Venezuelan crisis makes me think that there is more going on within the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks than meets the eye.

It sounds really weird that Cuba — of all countries — would be a U.S. go-between to help restore a semblance of economic and political order in Venezuela.

But then, Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and it cannot afford the collapse of Venezuela, at least not while the United States becomes its new No. 1 benefactor. And Obama, who is already being blasted by Republicans for allegedly “losing” Iraq and Syria to the Islamic State, cannot afford allowing a terrorist state to take hold within Venezuela.

Obama has already sent a senior State Department official — Thomas Shannon Jr. — in recent weeks to talk with the Venezuelan government. Judging from what Kerry told me, he is also talking with Cuba to help bring about a soft landing of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis.

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