Can Cuba be part of the solution to the political crisis in Venezuela?

In a surprise twist, the U.S. and other allies are considering negotiating with Cuba to join efforts to resolve the political standoff in Venezuela after the recent failed attempt by interim President Juan Guaidó to persuade his country’s military to withdraw its support for Nicolás Maduro.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo surprised many observers Sunday when he declared that the United States was “working” with Cuba to secure Maduro’s departure from Venezuela.

“We are working very diligently to ensure that Maduro leaves and we get free and fair elections in Venezuela,” Pompeo said during an appearance on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “That will require the 2,300 Cuban security personnel, frankly the people closest to Maduro who are protecting ... Maduro, they’ve got to leave. We’re working with the Cubans to try and get an outcome that will let the Venezuelans have this opportunity.”

In response to questions about the remarks, the State Department later sent el Nuevo Herald a statement saying that the U.S. government “regularly engage[s] with the Cuban government.” A spokesperson for the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau added, “We do not get into the specifics of our diplomatic discussions.”

Pompeo’s comments were also the first time the U.S. government put a number on the Cuban security presence in Venezuela. Several Trump administration officials and members of Congress have claimed that Cuban counterintelligence agents are helping Maduro to stay in power and serve on his inner security detail.

National Security Advisor John Bolton previously alleged that Cuba has 20,000 military personnel in Venezuela. Havana has denied that figure, saying that more than 90 percent of the Cubans in the South American country are medical personnel. Havana also has denied any role in security operations in Venezuela.

Although the U.S. government has repeatedly accused Cuba of supporting Maduro, the talk of negotiations started to move rapidly after the Lima Group issued a statement Friday promising “to take the steps necessary for Cuba to participate in the search for a solution to the crisis in Venezuela.”

On the same day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke on the phone with Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel.

“The Prime Minister, on behalf of the Lima Group, underscored the desire to see free and fair elections and the constitution upheld in Venezuela,” said a Canadian government statement. “The Prime Minister also reiterated his concern for the ongoing suffering of the Venezuelan people. The two leaders discussed ways they could work together to support a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”

The Cuban version of the telephone chat said Cuba wants Maduro to participate in the negotiations — a move unacceptable so far to the opposition in Venezuela.

“I talked to Canadian PM Trudeau and emphasized the need for dialogue with President Maduro based on respect for Venezuelan sovereignty and International Law without threats or foreign interventions,” said Díaz-Canel.

As a member of the Lima Group, Canada is well positioned to mediate with Havana because it is also Cuba’s fourth largest trade partner and its top source of tourists. The Canadian government also has opposed the full application of the Helms-Burton law, which has opened the doors to lawsuits in federal courts against Cuban and foreign companies benefiting from properties seized by the Castro regime after 1959. In a statement issued Friday, Canada said it would not recognize the rulings on any such lawsuits, and Díaz-Canel said he thanked Trudeau for the gesture during the conversation.

The European Union joined the approaches to Havana Saturday, with its high representative, Federica Mogherini, speaking by phone with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. That same day, Rodríguez wrote on Twitter that Cuba “will always support and contribute to the resolution of difference through a dialogue that respects the sovereign equality of nations, based on international right and the non-use of threats, force or foreign intervention.”

But it remains unclear just how interested Cuba would be in becoming part of the solution to the Venezuelan crisis. The island depends on Venezuelan oil for nearly half its domestic consumption and has insisted on its support for Maduro — for now more valuable to Cuba in Caracas than in Havana.

At the same time, those crude deliveries have shrunk substantially, other countries have shut their doors to Cuban medical personnel (who provide hard currency for Havana) and the growing shortages of basic food items are reflected on the long lines outside markets. Raúl Castro, who previously served as president and now heads Cuba’s Communist Party, has warned island residents to prepare for a deepening of the crisis, and the country’s elites appear to be nervous. On May 1, officials skipped the annual speech during a massive Labor Day march. And on Tuesday the government canceled the annual march against homophobia, to avoid any public protests.

“Cuba’s self-interest is a stable Venezuela that will continue to provide Cuba with oil in exchange for medical services,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who follows Cuban affairs closely. “The status quo is not good for Cuba because it is unstable; PDVSA is a mess, oil shipments are declining, and the future is highly uncertain.”

But Cuba would have few incentives to support Guaidó — recognized as interim president of Venezuela by more than 50 countries — who has ordered a halt to all oil shipments to Cuba. The best scenario for the Cuban government, LeoGrande added, would be a negotiation that guarantees the political survival of the ruling Chavismo party and the continuation, even if partial, of the agreement to exchange oil for medical services.

The Cuban government, which until recently had responded to U.S. accusations with its own rhetoric about a supposed U.S. invasion of Venezuela, also may have signaled that it may be interested in participating in the negotiations by releasing a political prisoner, a gesture the Cuban government only makes if taking part in high-profile negotiations.

On Sunday, the government released on probation Eduardo Cardet, Cuba’s best-known political prisoner and a leader of the Christian Liberation Movement founded by the late Oswaldo Payá. Cardet was convicted in 2016 to threes years in prison on charges of disturbing the public order by criticizing the late Fidel Castro. Cardet served two and a half years.

The change of mind about a dialogue may signal that the Cuban government believes that a political settlement is Maduro’s best option.

“And unless the army changes sides, a political settlement is the best the opposition can hope for, too. That’s the basis for a serious negotiation,” said LeoGrande.

Nevertheless, it’s also unclear how far the Trump administration would be willing to go in that direction. U.S.-Cuba relations have deteriorated rapidly after Washington tightened U.S. economic sanctions and visas, and the two countries have exchanged a flurry of insults and accusations.

One source familiar with the incident said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Kimberly Breier refused to meet with Carlos Fernández de Cossio, in charge of the Cuban Foreign Ministry department that handles U.S. affairs, when he visited Washington last week. The State Department said Fernández de Cossio was received on “a courtesy call” but met with no top U.S. officials. The source added that he briefly met an officer at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and that there were no “substantive conversations.”

A State Department spokesperson said U.S. officials are “continuing to review the full range of actions available to hold the Cuban regime accountable for its repressive actions against its own people as well as its role in repressing the people of Venezuela and continuing to prop up Maduro.

“The Cuban government knows that it needs to get out of Venezuela and stop supporting Maduro. We’ve made our position very clear,” she added.

Although some analysts believe that bringing Cuba to the negotiating table is inevitable, because of the Venezuelan opposition’s failure to persuade the military high command to support Guaidó, the idea is not popular among many Venezuelans and Cubans who doubt Havana is ready to negotiate in good faith. Critics of negotiations say the Cuban government will use them to buy time for Maduro, just as Maduro has used past negotiations with his opponents to delay and disarm efforts to remove him from office.

“Strategically it makes no sense,” said Cuban opposition activist Rosa María Payá, “because the Socialist mafias in power in Venezuela are part of the Cuban regime, or close to it. Therefore the Castro people would go in [to negotiations] to guarantee the survival of the criminal Venezuelan regime, which is much bigger than Maduro, and not to end the dictatorship.”

“For the Cuba regime, it’s convenient to distract public attention from the crimes that it is itself committing in Venezuela and in Cuba,” Payá added. “It’s a Castro tactic, to create a problem in order to position itself as the solution.”

Criticisms of Julio Borges, Guaidó’s representative on the Lima Group, have been so strident on social media that Borges had to deny that the opposition had requested the dialogue with Havana.

“Because of the opinions that one group is trying to sow, I want to make clear that we have not requested a dialogue with Cuba. On the contrary, we have taken the lead on actions to put more pressure on the Cuban government and accelerate its departure from Venezuela,” Borges said. “Let’s remember: The enemy is in front of us.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

Related stories from Miami Herald