In the country that holds the world’s largest oil reserves, a political and economic crisis is unfolding. Venezuela’s corrupt government, led by President Nicolas Maduro, attacks and jails its opponents who protest bogus elections and the unlawful consolidation of power. Slightly less visible are the ongoing food and medicine shortages and a tumbling currency that’s making it difficult to obtain scarce goods. But the Maduro government denies that there is a humanitarian emergency and refuses international aid.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Maduro and other Venezuelan officials as punishment for corruption and human rights abuses, freezing their assets and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them. But these targeted sanctions have only bolstered Maduro’s rhetoric, who claims that the U.S. is waging an economic war responsible for Venezuela’s collapse.
To effectively address Venezuela’s growing crisis, the U.S. must do more than condemn Maduro and impose sanctions; it must negotiate Maduro’s resignation, push for legitimate elections, and encourage the restoration of power in the National Assembly. But most importantly, these negotiations with Venezuela must be multilateral. Major Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, are indispensable to restoring democracy in Venezuela. And this pan-American alliance will require Cuba’s help.
In fact, of all the countries in Latin America, Cuba is in the strongest position to lead successful negotiations designed to resolve Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian problems.
First, Cuba has both the experience and credibility it needs to serve as an effective intermediary for Venezuela. The country has helped broker peace negotiations before, most recently in Colombia’s peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC). These negotiations have enabled Cuba to demonstrate that it can serve as a neutral peace broker between parties with tense relations. Cuba can also leverage its experience with Colombia to convince Maduro and his senior officials that it’s in their best interest to negotiate, while offering them a safe haven from arrest during negotiations. And because it has friendly relations with many other Latin American countries, Cuba is likely to be trusted by other governments in the region as well as Maduro and his senior officials.
Secondly, Cuba has economic leverage over Venezuela. Maduro relies on Cuba for his own security, and Venezuela receives Cuban doctors, teachers, intelligence and security personnel in exchange for subsidized crude oil for Cuba.
Finally, Cuba is one of the few allies Venezuela has left, making it one of the only countries with the diplomatic and political influence to persuade Maduro to step aside. And if Cuba succeeds, Maduro’s removal would prompt presidential elections in Venezuela and, hopefully, lead to the reestablishment of democracy.
A Cuban-U.S. partnership may seem unlikely. Although the U.S. has not formally severed diplomatic ties with Cuba, relations have worsened in recent months. In September for instance, the U.S. pulled its embassy staff from Havana after they reported a series of mysterious injuries. (The Cuban government has denied any involvement.)
But both countries have incentives to compartmentalize their bilateral issues and work together on Venezuela. The Maduro government will inevitably collapse, and Cuba and the U.S. will want to be on the right side of history—even if selfishly just for good PR or economic reasons. The U.S. can begin to shed its reputation as an aggressive imperialist, and Cuba can gain favor with President Trump to potentially get its own sanctions dropped.
Venezuela is in a state of emergency. Thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country, and many who remain are hungry and ill. Venezuelans must wait in line for hours for basic necessities and are sometimes unable to obtain the food and goods they need. Doctors are unable to treat life-threatening illnesses including cancer and HIV. With the Venezuelan government refusing international aid, the lives of millions of people are at serious risk.
The international community must unite to overcome this grave humanitarian crisis and save democracy in Venezuela. And it has to begin with both Cuba and the U.S.