Trump officials say Cuba meddles in Venezuela, but Havana almost ignored in threat report

Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel (right) and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro are shown in the Palace of the Revolution in Havana in April 2018.
Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel (right) and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro are shown in the Palace of the Revolution in Havana in April 2018. AP

Trump administration officials have been trying to build a case that one reason Venezuelan military support for President Nicolás Maduro hasn’t crumbled is the undue influence of Cuban military advisers in Venezuela.

But Cuba got scant attention in the U.S. intelligence community’s 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment” and there was no mention of the threat of a Cuba-Venezuela nexus.

In the 42-page assessment released on Capitol Hill earlier this week, the only observations on Cuba were these:

▪ “Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel will adhere to former President Raúl Castro’s blueprint for institutionalizing one-party rule and socialism in Cuba through constitutional reforms. Díaz-Canel has acknowledged that Raúl Castro, who still commands the ruling Communist Party, remains the dominant voice on public policy.” [Cuba plans a nationwide referendum on a new constitution on Feb. 24.]

▪ “We assess that Iran and Cuba’s intelligence services will continue to target the United States, which they see as a primary threat.”

The annual threat report is prepared by the 16 agencies and administrative office that make up the U.S. intelligence community. Intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, testified on the report before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday. It was prepared with information available as of Jan. 17.

In the section on the Western Hemisphere, the report said: “Flagging economies, migration flows, corruption, narcotics trafficking, and anti-U.S. autocrats will present continuing challenges to U.S. interests, as U.S. adversaries and strategic competitors seek greater influence in the region.”

“China and Russia will pursue efforts to gain economic and security influence in the region,” the report said.

The threat assessment for Venezuela made this observation: “Although the regime of Nicolás Maduro will continue to try to maintain power, he is facing persistent opposition. Falling oil production, economic mismanagement, and legal challenges almost certainly will compound the worsening economic pressure on the country.”

The mild-mannered section on Cuba in the report contrasts with recent remarks by Trump administration officials.

Administration sources have said they are considering putting Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism if Havana continues to support Maduro. Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2015 as part of the Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba.

But U.S.-Cuba relations have grown strained during the Trump administration and in recent weeks U.S. officials have been highly critical of Cuba’s role in Venezuela.

“No regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish condition of the Venezuelan people than the regime in Havana,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last Saturday. “Cuban security and intelligence thugs, invited into Venezuela by Maduro himself and those around him, have sustained this illegitimate rule. ... Cuba has directly made matters worse.”

Cuba has remained steadfast in its support of Maduro and been highly critical of the United States. “The Secretary of State slanders to justify coup against constitutional power in . Washington designed, financed and arranged the alleged usurpation of the Venezuelan presidency,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in a tweet after the United States recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.

Guaidó, who has been backed as interim president by about two dozen other countries, also has complained of Cuban meddling: “It’s time for Cuba to get out of the armed forces. It’s time for the Cubans to leave decision-making jobs. Cuban brothers: You are welcome to stay in this country. But only outside the armed forces and decision-making jobs.”

It’s unclear how many Cuban military advisers and security agents might be in Venezuela, but Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio contends they are primarily responsible for the military’s willingness to stand behind Maduro despite increasing pressure by the United States, including new U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

“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 during a recent speech.. “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.”

The Threat Assessment notes that “Maduro continues to crack down on the political and military opposition after a failed assassination attempt against him in August 2018 and disrupted coup plots in the past 12 months, but the opposition has shown resilience, as indicated by its challenge to Maduro’s rule emerging in late January 2019.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.