Venezuela Says Goodbye to Its Lil Friend, While the Rest of the Continent Cheers

The U.S.-Cuban détente is already shaking up Latin America.

Pedro RUIZ/GAMMA via Getty

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Most Latin Americans celebrated the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. Many perceived the 53-year-old impasse as a remnant of a Cold War mentality that had lasted too long and interfered in relationships between the U.S. and other countries in the region.

“This feels like the early 1990s after the Berlin wall came down, and politically extreme positions weakened, at least in the short term,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College.

The rift put Washington at odds with countries like Brazil, Uruguay or Chile, which seemed to have come to terms with their past. Leaders who had once been active members of leftist guerrilla groups or activists in unions or social movements were not only democratically elected by wide majorities, but most were reelected.

“To some extent, the dialogue they have initiated removes a major point of friction between the U.S. and governments in the region for which Cuba remains emblematic,” said Patrick Duddy, director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University, and former U.S. ambassador in Venezuela.

But one country won’t be benefiting from the new détente: Venezuela, the most anti-American country on the continent today, and until Wednesday, Cuba’s main political ally.

The late president Hugo Chávez had a very close relationship with Fidel Castro, which hugely benefited Cuba, left in dire shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to The New York Times, in exchange for thousands of Cuban teachers, doctors, sports trainers and military advisors, Venezuela provides the island with about 100,000 barrels of oil a day.

Before his death in 2013, Chávez instructed Venezuelans to vote for his foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, known as Castro’s “man in Caracas.” Today, as president, he constantly praises Fidel and Raúl in his speeches and frequently travels to the island.

That’s why Wednesday’s announcements by Obama and Castro shocked many Venezuelans, who wondered if Maduro was aware of negotiations between the two countries or if he had heard of it for the first time on TV. (Likely the latter, because a high-ranking U.S. official said on Wednesday that Cuba-Venezuela relations had not even been mentioned during the bilateral negotiations.)

“Cuba’s priorities were more important than loyalty to Maduro, who is now being left behind as an anachronistic, out of fashion leader when all of the other countries are brokering deals with Washington,” said Carlos Romero, a Caracas-based political analyst.

Like the Castro brothers, Maduro often uses scapegoat tactics to deflect attention from his country’s economic free-fall. However, there is a significant difference: Venezuela is not under embargo and the U.S. remains Venezuela’s main trading partner, despite Maduro’s anti-American rhetoric. A Cuba-U.S. rapprochement will make it increasingly hard for his government to blame the U.S. for its economic problems.

And there are many. Venezuela’s government gets 96 percent of its revenue from oil exports, but global prices have dropped 40 percent since June. Even before that, inflation was in the double digits—it’s over 60 percent today—foreign reserves were shrinking, and Venezuelan bonds have plummeted in the market on fears the government will default next year.

In short, Maduro is now facing dual crises: One economic, the other of legitimacy. Without Cuban political patronage, Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” which he positioned as a natural successor to the Cuban Revolution, will look intellectually bankrupt—especially if oil prices remain low and the country’s generous subsidies to the poor becomes too expensive to maintain.

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So, it makes sense that high-ranking officials have framed the rapprochement as a victory of the brave Cuban rebels against Uncle Sam. Likewise, President Evo Morales, from Bolivia, one of Maduro’s major allies on the continent, celebrated the negotiations as a victory of Cuba against the U.S., stating, “Unbowed resistance to the empire has results.” Relations between Bolivia and the United States have been strained since 2008, when Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, and only worsened in 2013 when Morales’s plane was forced to land in Vienna on U.S. suspicions that it carried Edward Snowden.

Yet, despite all that and the anti-Yanqui rhetoric, Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said a few days ago that Bolivia looked forward to a meeting between presidents Morales and Obama.

In Central America and in the southern cone’s center-left countries, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, leaders not only commended the efforts from both governments, but also those of the Pope, a native of Argentina.

And another announcement led to more speculation. Hours after Castro’s and Obama’s speeches, Colombia’s FARC rebels announced a unilateral ceasefire. The guerrilla group and the Colombian government have been in peace negotiations in Havana since 2012 aimed at ending a 50-year insurgence that has killed at least 220,000 and displaced millions more. Analysts interpreted it as an immediate ripple effect of the newly established US-Cuban détente. In Colombia, it was perceived more like a coincidence or perhaps even an opportunistic play by the FARC. In past years they have declared a ceasefire right before Christmas, but have resumed attacks once the holiday season is over. President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday the FARC’s ceasefire announcement was like a “rose with thorns.”

The rapprochement does however send an important message to both the FARC rebels and the extreme right in Colombia, represented by former president Alvaro Uribe who opposes the talks in Havana. “If the U.S. and Cuba can recognize each other and reach practical agreements despite being political adversaries for more than 50 years, others can too,” said Alvaro Sierra, a columnist with El Tiempo newspaper and an expert in armed conflicts in Bogotá.

Hosting Colombia’s peace negotiations will probably help Cuba in this new stage of redefining its relationship with the U.S. It seems, at the very least, contradictory for the island to remain on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism if it is helping Colombia deal with a group listed as a terrorist organization by many countries. Santos said he would do whatever was in his power to support this historic process between “different visions that coexist in America.”

Lastly, the re-opening of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington gives Brazil a chance to push for changes in Cuba. “We never imagined we’d see this moment of the U.S. and Cuba resuming their relations,” said Brazilian President Dilma Roussef. “I’d like to commend President Raúl Castro. I’d like to acknowledge President Barack Obama.”

The Brazilian press said the White House informed Brasilia about the rapprochement minutes before the statement was made public. The Brazilian government was not involved in the bilateral negotiations, but has played a part in other situations, and was directly involved in pressing for Alan Gross’ release a few years back. Those are kind words from a president who cancelled an invitation to a state dinner after revelations she was being spied on by the NSA.

Brazil is also Cuba’s third commercial partner, and has invested on several projects, including Port Mariel, a special economic development zone inaugurated in January, worth almost $1 billion. Odebrecht, Brazil´s giant engineering firm, is also improving Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

The next time all the presidents from North and South America meet will be at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. “We celebrate the new era in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. At the Summit of the Americas we will fulfill the dream of a united region,” tweeted Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.

The optimism across the hemisphere was obvious, but many challenges remain. While many presidents and prime ministers of the Americas may hope Raúl Castro will take a formal seat at the summit, this would imply recognizing Cuba as a democracy, a concept that for many Cubans is still just a dream.