The Trump administration is considering returning Cuba to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism if its government and military continue to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told el Nuevo Herald.
”What Cubans are doing in Venezuela is unacceptable,” a senior administration official said. “And the United States is evaluating options to address that behavior.”
The Obama administration removed Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism in 2015 — one of the island government’s demands for agreeing to reestablish diplomatic relations. But the Trump administration has increasingly highlighted Cuba’s role in Venezuela and threatened Havana with increased sanctions.
The official said Cuban intelligence operatives in Venezuela have been a “fundamental” factor in the continued support of Maduro by senior Venezuelan armed forces officers.
The United States and several other countries no longer recognize Maduro as president because he was reelected in balloting marred by allegations of fraud. Instead, the U.S. supports National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who took an oath as interim president on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino and other members of the military high command pledged their support to Maduro in a televised statement.
“The Cubans are executing a strategy to keep the military from second-guessing their support to Maduro,” said the official. “The only thing that is preventing the generals from supporting President Guaidó is the surveillance Cubans are doing. What is keeping Maduro going is Cuba’s logistical support.”
In his first public appearance after he was sworn in, Guaidó urged the Cuban government to stop interfering in Venezuelan affairs.
“It’s time for Cuba to get out of the armed forces. It’s time for the Cubans to leave decision-making jobs,” Guaidó said. “Cuban brothers: You are welcome to stay in this country. But only outside the armed forces and decision-making jobs.”
After Guaidó was briefly arrested last week, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton complained that “such acts of intimidation by Maduro’s Cuban-sponsored secret police... represent a grave assault on the rule of law in Venezuela.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also referred to the Cuban role in Venezuela during a speech Thursday, saying that Maduro had “bought” the loyalty of the largely corrupt generals.
“They are also loyal, by the way, because the Cubans are spying on them. The Cuban intelligence agencies quickly pick up on any of these military officers that are being disloyal or expressing doubts and those guys are arrested,” Rubio said. “There has been a massive purge of Venezuelan military officers over the last two years … And it wasn’t because of corruption … It was because the Cubans caught them and reported them.”
Although Venezuelan military officers and politicians who broke with the Maduro regime have reported the presence of Cuban military and security agents in Venezuela, the number is unknown. Retired Venezuelan Gen. Antonio Rivero told el Nuevo Herald in 2015 that nearly 20,000 Cubans were in Venezuela carrying out training “as militias, as combatants.”
The dismissal of secret police chief Gustavo González López last year was seen as a maneuver by Cuban intelligence to tighten its control over the department. The National Bolivarian Armed Forces confirmed last year that elite Cuban troops known as Black Wasps had taken part in military maneuvers on the border with Colombia.
The Cuban government’s refusal so far to extradite Colombian guerrillas — in Havana for currently suspended negotiations — may also give the White House cause to consider returning Cuba to the terrorist list. After last week’s car bombing in Bogota blamed on the National Liberation Army guerrillas, the Colombian government demanded the extraditions. Cuba and Norway, also part of the negotiations, refused and said they were following the required protocols.
The Cuban government was on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism from 1982 until 2015, when the Obama administration ruled the island was no longer supporting terrorist organizations. The Trump administration is also considering other sanctions on Cuba, including allowing Cuban exiles to file suits in U.S. courts against companies now “trafficking” on properties seized by the Castro regime after 1959.
Returning Cuba to the list could be “disastrous” for the Cuban economy because it would scare away desperately needed foreign investments, already very small, said Baruch College Prof. Ted Henken.
But others say that would have little effect on the island.
“Putting Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of international terrorism would not have a major practical impact on Cuba because almost all the financial sanctions that such a designation entails are already in place under the broader Cuban embargo,” said American University professor William LeoGrande. “However, Cuba would take it as a great insult, and it would certainly have an extremely negative effect on state-to-state cooperation on issues of mutual interest.”
It’s not clear if the threat of a new sanction would be enough to force a change by the government in Cuba, where the economy has largely depended on oil subsidies from Venezuela.
A Cuban government statement Wednesday condemned “energetically the attempt to impose, through a coup d’etat, a puppet government at the service of the United States” in Venezuela. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez added Thursday that Cuba’s support for “Nicolás Maduro and the Bolivarian and Chavista Revolution is and will be steadfast.”
But in private, the Cuban government is likely to be evaluating the situation in Venezuela, said LeoGrande.
“The Cuban government certainly recognizes that Maduro’s situation is dire and the worst outcome for Cuba would be complete regime collapse through civil violence or external military intervention. Regime collapse would probably mean an immediate end to Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba — a blow to an already fragile economy,” he said.
“Cuba would be willing to help find a negotiated political solution to the Venezuelan crisis — like it did in Angola and Colombia — but only if both Maduro and the opposition are willing to seek such a solution,” LeoGrande added. “At the moment, neither side seems willing to accept any compromise. As a result, the Cubans are essentially stuck with Maduro, even as the chances for his survival diminish.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres