Why Cuba and Canada Should Sit at the Venezuelan Negotiation Table

Canada could help bring a more flexible Cuba to the Venezuelan negotiating table—and a more flexible Cuba could mean a more flexible Venezuela

In August 2019, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland visited his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez to talk specifically about Venezuela

Photo: Reuters

While several experts, organizations, and politicians have called for a dialogue to resolve the Venezuelan stalemate between the opposition and the Maduro regime, it’s been assumed many times that this political negotiation is one where the two parties are somewhat equally strong—an unrealistic assumption, if there ever was one. What isn’t always said, is that despite the unquestionable fact that it’s Maduro who calls the shots inside Venezuela, both his government and the opposition depend on foreign governments to stay afloat. Guaidó relies on U.S. recognition to maintain political relevance, and Maduro has depended on Cuban intelligence to quash dissent in the Armed Forces to stay in power

At the same time, those foreign actors that are so closely related to the Venezuelan situation have been paralyzed in a hostile relationship since the 1960s. Yet, the economic hardships in Cuba, increased not only by the island’s domestic reality but the decline in Venezuelan aid, took Havana to start a dialogue with Washington under the Obama administration, until the thaw was essentially reversed by Trump. 

Now that we’re talking about negotiations in Venezuela again, after so many failed attempts, we face the key question of who must have a spot at the table to ensure the most effective result possible. More than ever, we’re clear that both, the U.S. and Cuba, have enough influence over the opposition and chavismo to sway them into a meaningful negotiation. This opens a window for more questions, of course: Can the U.S. and Cuba find common ground and motivation to participate? What can both governments do to impact the Venezuelan table positively?

A Handy Liferaft for the Revolution

It’s clear to everyone that, for the Cuban regime, the survival of the revolution is above anything else, and for the post Período Especial era, this priority has been met by establishing a symbiotic relationship with the chavista regime.

According to Omar Everleny Pérez, former professor at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a hypothetical demise of Maduro would have a “significant impact on Cuba, as most of the fuel that Cuba receives comes from there [Venezuela]. But the conditions on which it’s received, at prices different from the world market, are more important.” 

The economic hardships in Cuba, increased not only by the island’s domestic reality but the decline in Venezuelan aid, took Havana to start a dialogue with Washington under the Obama administration until the thaw was essentially reversed by Trump. 

Nevertheless, while the relationship was a blessing for the Cuban regime back then, it’s become more of a burden due to the constant decline of Venezuela’s oil production in recent years, leaving the Cubans vulnerable and forcing them to vary their trade partners with countries like China. In fact, several experts have stated that one of the main factors that drove Cuba towards the thawing of relations with the Obama administration was the political and economical crisis Venezuela was suffering during 2014 and 2015. Ironically, if we look back to those years, the Venezuelan situation in 2014 was much better than it is today. The GDP per capita in 2014 was almost 2.3 times more than in 2019. The inflation rate was high but it wasn’t today’s hyperinflation, and oil production (the most important factor for Cuba) in 2014 was almost 65% more compared to 2020. The reality is that Venezuela is much worse now than when Cuba first decided to sit down and talk with the U.S in December 2014. Back then, Venezuela wasn’t an international issue but a domestic crisis between Venezuelans, so there was no incentive for the Cubans nor the Americans to even bring that topic to the table during their secret talks

It’s different now. While Venezuela proved to be Cuba’s greatest ally at one point, it’s becoming a dangerous liability: if Maduro is deposed, it could create a situation that could leave the revolution vulnerable. Cuba can’t allow a regime change in Venezuela as that would end Cuba’s Venezuelan oil supply causing a significant negative impact on their economy… unless a solution is provided for the Cuban situation too. If they decided back then that the Venezuelan situation was a big enough factor to merit a thawing of a 54-year-old rivalry, then they’ll definitely give it a thought now.

If the Cubans and the Americans resume their talks, Venezuela would be one of the main topics on the agenda; probably the one where the Cuban regime holds the most leverage over the Americans due to their extensive influence in the chavista structure of power.

If Cuba will be determined enough to “compel” their fellow socialist comrades to a fruitful dialogue, it’s still a question for debate. However, I’d say that there are many incentives for them to do so right now. Notwithstanding, there’s an undeniable truth when it comes to any possible negotiation in Venezuela, and it’s that Cuba must be included in those talks in order for something to come out from that negotiation. And what Cuba probably wants is a solution for the revolution, a long-term solution that fills the void that Venezuela would create. In other words, any solution for Venezuela must be accompanied by a solution for Cuba.

The Biden Opportunity

In 2017, our “orange friend” reversed much of the policies implemented under the thawing process, thus driving the Cubans to hold their influence over Venezuela a lot tighter. When Trump imposed sanctions on the Maduro regime in 2019, he took advantage of the opportunity to impose further restrictions on U.S.-Cuba policy. This was a movement that was considered “regrettable” by the EU and Canada, two of the closest allies of the U.S. Now Biden has the task of repairing the estranged relations with Latin America that his predecessor left, one of those relations being Cuba. Biden has promised several times that he’ll return to the Obama-era policies surrounding Cuba and that he believes that the regime will in fact hold their side of the bargain. While Biden has kept most of his word, he has been very slow in implementing his promised Cuba policy. Some experts claim that the reason why he’s been slow is that it would be “political suicide,” even if, in 2020, 58% of Cuban Americans supported establishing diplomatic ties. 

Recovering the process that was putting an end to a 60-year-old standoff that has brought nothing but problems to both Cuba and the U.S., is a goal that President Biden has stated to be willing to achieve, and that the Cubans also support. But is also a goal that could also be hampered by Cuba’s involvement in Venezuela.

The re-thaw in the Cuban-American relations goes hand in hand with the Venezuelan crisis, which has been growing in importance among Americans and Cuban-Americans. If Biden and the Cuban regime want to reattempt a serious diplomatic approach, both will have to make concessions to each other, not only in the form of lifting the trade embargo or the liberation of political prisoners but also on the Venezuelan negotiation with concessions from the Maduro dictatorship and the Caretaker government. 

A Common Friend from the Great North

Canada might come in handy as it has strong relations with the U.S and Cuba. Besides, Canada has committed itself to a resolution of the Venezuelan crisis as well; even attempting a similar approach two years ago.

Not only do the Canadians enjoy an extensive history as one of the U.S’ closest allies, but they also maintain historical good relations with Cuba, as Canada is one of the two countries in the hemisphere to have never cut off diplomatic ties with the island after the Cuban revolution. They have previously served as diplomatic intermediaries between the Americans and the Cubans, with the most recent case being the 2014 secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Castro regime. While the Canadians might recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, putting them at odds with Maduro in a possible negotiation, their good relations with Havana allows them to engage in talks about the topic with the Cuban regime, a role they’ve expressed they’re willing to take and that academics have applauded.

Cuba must be included in those talks in order for something to come out from that negotiation. And what Cuba probably wants is a solution for the revolution, a long-term solution that fills the void that Venezuela would create. In other words, any solution for Venezuela must be accompanied by a solution for Cuba.

According to William LeoGrande from American University, the main focus of the Canadians has been to convince the Cubans to persuade the Maduro regime to be more “lenient” at the negotiation table. In 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau said that “Cuba can potentially play a very positive role in the well-being and future stability of Venezuela.” Now, what can the Canadians themselves offer the Cubans to persuade them into a negotiation? Nothing, they already enjoy stable bilateral and economic relations. However, what they can do is communicate the aforementioned Cuban concerns and demands to the Americans and vice versa, thus taking Biden’s administration’s concern of “political fallout” from talking to the Cubans out of the equation. 

In short, with Canadian involvement, the U.S. and Cuba might be able to negotiate quietly without triggering a national debate on whether they should be speaking to each other in the first place.

Evidently, for a successful political negotiation to take place between chavismo and the opposition, there are still many terms that need to be discussed and agreed on: the release of political prisoners, lifting international sanctions, measures dealing with the humanitarian crisis, free and fair elections, etc. Yet, it’s important to understand that the Venezuelan crisis stopped being a problem that could only be resolved between Venezuelans long ago. While these are quite significant topics, no progress is going to be made if Maduro isn’t willing to budge at the negotiation table. This is why Cuba is so important, because as the biggest ideological and political influence of the dictatorship, it’s the only one that can appeal to Maduro to be more lenient at the negotiation table. However, the Cubans won’t do it for free, first, they need guarantees of a solution for their revolution, a solution that can be provided by the Americans, and facilitated by the Canadians.

I won’t judge anyone that’s skeptical of the negotiations and says that nothing is going to come out of this; they might be right, after all, that’s one of the risks in negotiations. However, it’d be a mistake to say that these talks are the same regular talks that have been taking place over the years. The reason’s different this time because the question of negotiating or not doesn’t rest solely on Maduro and Guaidó, there are many other internal and external stakeholders with an interest in closing this long chapter of the Venezuelan political crisis.