For years, Venezuela has called Cuba its political role-model and ideological godfather, adopting many of its socialist policies and its anti-imperialist rhetoric. Now that Cuba and the U.S. seem bent on mending ties, however, Caracas may have trouble adapting, analyst said.
Wednesday’s laundry-list of economic reforms, which include more trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, along with restoring full diplomatic ties, make many of Maduro’s fiery speeches ring hollow, said Jesus Seguias a Caracas-based political analyst and pollster with DatinCorp.
“Nicolás Maduro is facing an enormous dilemma,” he said. “How is he going to justify his anti-imperialist politics when his principal ally has become an ally of the empire?”
He said the Maduro administration will be forced to change its rhetoric or risk being an increasingly isolated voice in the region.
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Wednesday’s announcement won plaudits from across the hemisphere, including Maduro who said it may have been the “most important decision” of President Barack Obama’s presidency. The Union of South American Nations, Unasur, offered to help the United States improve ties in the region.
But the rapprochement comes at a time when Venezuela needs an enemy. The country’s socialist economic policies have featured falling growth, record-high inflation and shortages of everything from cooking oil to toilet paper. Maduro has blamed the problems on his political foes and the United States — and not his socialist policies which include draconian price and currency controls, and expropriations.
Tanking fuel prices are also gutting the national budget, threatening popular health and housing projects that are key to the government’s waning support.
The crisis is casting a shadow over Venezuela’s PetroCaribe aid program, which sends hundreds of thousands of barrels of highly subsidized oil to allies in the Caribbean and Central America.
Cuba alone gets 100,000 barrels a day from Venezuela — a vital lifeline for the Cuban regime which pays for the fuel in kind by sending doctors and military advisers to Venezuela. Venezuela’s economic collapse was likely on Cuba’s mind as it pursued talks with the U.S., analysts said.
“Given the economic disaster in Venezuela today any rational person dependent on Venezuelan financial support would have to be looking at other options,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
But Venezuela may have hope yet. Even as the United States pursues closer ties with Venezuela, Obama has a bill on his desk that would impose targeted sanctions on Venezuelan authorities who helped crack down on anti-government protests earlier this year.
The sanctions won’t touch the general population, as they’re largely aimed at denying visas and freezing assets of government officials. But the Maduro spin machine is likely to hype up their impact, Arnson said.
“The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function” as the embargo on Cuba, she predicted. “It’s a way of deflecting attention from the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”