U.S. tells Cuba to back off in Venezuela or face more sanctions

The Cuban government could face “worse consequences” for its actions in Venezuela if it does not withdraw its support of Nicolás Maduro, a senior administration official warned on Thursday.

“What you’re going to see are incremental actions,” the official said in a teleconference with journalists. “Every action we had taken against the Cuban government has been specifically targeted on their financial networks, on their income, on their oil trade. All of that is going to become aggravated if they don’t cease their support for the destruction of democracy and the repression of the Venezuelan people.”

“If you don’t want to see worse consequences, now is the time to take a step back,” the official said.

Elliott Abrams, the United States special envoy for Venezuela, made similar comments on Wednesday during an event in Washington, warning of more sanctions coming against the Cuban government.

“The pressures on Cuba have increased a lot since January and will continue to increase, and we have made it clear that it is due to their actions in Venezuela,” Abrams said.

The United States, however, is not willing to offer the Cuban government incentives similar to those it has provided to Venezuelan officials and companies sanctioned for their activities in that country.

The official told reporters that the United States was willing to offer guarantees to Maduro that he would not be prosecuted if he abandons power, an offer first reported by the el Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald.

Two other high-ranking officials also said in the teleconference, which was held to announce sanctions against relatives of Maduro and members of a corruption network associated with food distribution, that these and other sanctions “do not have to be permanent.”

The officials gave as examples the lifting of sanctions against the former head of Venezuelan intelligence, Manuel Christopher Figuera, who defected and is now cooperating with the U.S.; and B.P. Tankers, a company sanctioned for participating in the shipment of oil to Cuba.

“This could happen very quickly. What you need is to change the nature of the conduct in which you are engaged,” said one of the officials.

But the case of Cuba is different, one of the high-ranking officials told reporters.

“The conditions for changing our sanctions regime toward Cuba are codified in the [Helms-Burton] law, so the Cuban government knows very well what to do,” he said.

The law establishes that the president, in consultation with Congress, may suspend the embargo when a transition government is in place in Cuba.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Cuba maintains “several thousand” security and intelligence agents in Venezuela. The Trump administration maintains that Cuba has hindered Maduro’s departure and resolution of the political conflict, which has worsened in the last six months. At the end of January, Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan National Assembly’s leader, declared Maduro illegitimate and swore himself in as acting president, with the support of the United States and more than 50 other countries.

Since then, the U.S. has increased the pressure against the Cuban regime and its military. Measures include new limits on travel and remittances. Trump also authorized lawsuits against companies making profits from properties that were confiscated without compensation by the Castro government six decades ago.

U.S. sanctions and the economic collapse of Venezuela have dragged down the Cuban economy, with Cubans suffering from food and gas shortages and electrical blackouts. Venezuelan oil shipments to the island, which had already declined substantially, have been further hampered by U.S. sanctions against companies and ships involved in the trade.

The Treasury Department also included Cuba’s leading oil import company, the state-owned Cubametales, in its list of blocked entities.

“Regarding Venezuela, our policy has been to shine a spotlight on Cuba’s activities in Venezuela, its long-term efforts to support the repression of the Venezuelan people,” an official said during the conference call.

But the sanctions policy does not seem to have worked so far.

The Cuban government has given no indication of backing off from its relationship with Maduro, who is also supported by Russia and China. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, visiting Havana on Tuesday, reiterated his support for the Cuban government, in a clear challenge to the United States.

Canada and the European Union have made diplomatic efforts to bring the Cuban government to the negotiating table and find a political solution to the crisis in Venezuela. The Cuban government has participated in some meetings and has reiterated its willingness to engage in dialogue, but has denied that it provides intelligence and security support to Maduro.

“Cuba does not give in to pressure or threats,” Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel wrote on Twitter last week. “We will eternally defend our sovereignty and independence.”

“The Cubans are more defiant, which makes me more convinced that they see this as somehow existential,” said a senior Trump administration official in an interview with the Miami Herald.

“Cuba continues to ‘deny, deny, deny’” that it has intelligence personnel in Venezuela, he said, but at the same time, the island’s government seems to be evaluating whether it could safeguard its interests with another person in the government other than Maduro.

“I think the Cubans are asking themselves the question, ‘do we sink or swim with Maduro?’ If they do, they would be the only ones that would,” the official said.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres

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