Can the US-Cuba honeymoon last?

Efforts to normalize diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba appear to be progressing rapidly, but will that continue? Venezuela could hold clues.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
This mural in Caracas gives a sense of how the Venezuelan government views the United States. Cuba's rhetoric is similar, but its relationship with the US is shifting.

Relations between the United States and Venezuela are not at a high point. Shrill cries of Yankee imperialism and secret meddling are emanating from Caracas. Accusations of human rights abuses and attacks on democratic freedoms ring out from Washington. The US has slapped sanctions on some Venezuelan officials. Both countries are reducing embassy staffs as a part of the diplomatic duel. 

By contrast, relations between the US and Cuba appear to be improving at such a pace that President Obama says the two longtime adversaries could announce an accord to open embassies in each other’s capitals by next month.

But is the tension with Venezuela a harbinger of what is to come with Cuba? The two countries, after all, have much in common, from shared leftist political ideologies to fraught histories with the US. Can the US and Cuba actually carve a new future out of their new attempts to normalize relations, or are they likely to go down the same spiraling path the US and Venezuela seem to be on?

Cuba's response to the ongoing US-Venezuela row begins to offer clues. True, Fidel Castro – rarely heard from since he turned the reins of power over to brother Raúl Castro in 2008 – emerged to blast the “brutal” US measures and to praise Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s stand against the imperial power as “brilliant and brave.”

But to Latin America expert Michael Shifter, Cuba's response to US sanctions actually seemed “restrained” and was issued “with very little enthusiasm.” It was, he and others say, a hint of how the US-Cuba relationship might develop. Yes, there will be rhetorical attacks when it suits Cuba’s domestic political purposes. The Castros will not want to throw the door open to change too quickly, and anti-imperialist rhetoric has been is one of their most important tools in their efforts to maintain control.

But with Venezuela's economic free-fall, the regional landscape is changing for Cuba, in many ways forcing the Cuban government to accept the necessity of opening to the US. The result could be occasional thunderous denunciations of American imperialism undergirded by cautious but pragmatic economic reform at home and dialogue with the US. 

“I’m not sure there was ever a very great likelihood that things were suddenly going to be smooth with Cuba, because at the end of the day there are still profound differences between” Cuba and the US, says Mr. Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and an adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University.

“But at the same time, the Cubans are acutely aware that Venezuela is in an unrelenting crisis and not going to get better any time soon,” he says. “So while it’s no surprise that Cuba would continue to come down on the side of its regional friends, what it’s not going to do is risk the promise of the opening with the US over the Venezuela question.”

US officials seemed to hint at this on Friday while previewing the third round of US-Cuba talks, which got under way in Havana Monday. While the US was “disappointed” at the Cuban government’s reaction to “sovereign actions of the United States Government,” an official said, the US was not “surprised” Cuba would defend an ally.

More important, the official added he was his confident that the US-Venezuela row “will not have an impact on these [normalization] conversations moving forward.”

If anything, the end of a decade-and-a-half long “symbiotic relationship” between Cuba and Venezuela, prompted by Venezuela’s economic tailspin and social chaos, is pushing Cuba closer to the US.

“The Cubans saw the environment changing, they knew that Venezuela wasn’t going to be able to play the bankrolling role anymore and they didn’t want the predicament again of being reliant on a failing country – as they had been on the Soviet Union – so they decided to go full bore on normalizing relations with the US,” says Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But Raúl Castro made the decision to open to the US “reluctantly and only out of necessity,” Mr. Meacham says. That means relations are likely to remain touchy.

In particular, Meacham expects the Cuban government to pull out the ideological playbook it so successfully exported to Venezuela and President Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, whenever it senses political and economic changes are coming too fast.

“What the Cuban leadership benefits from is a very slow transition, one they can control, because if it goes too fast they won’t be able to control the pace of political and economic change,” Meacham says. “So I would expect them to use the anti-imperialist rhetoric to try to slow down that process.”

Indeed, he says Cuban officials have already made sharp references to the US economic embargo or to Cuba’s placement on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in public statements during the normalization talks.

“They’re going to continue to use the rhetoric as a leverage point to advance their objectives,” he says.

Still, the glory days of railing against the US as the root of all the country’s troubles appear to be past, largely because they hold less sway with Cubans.

“That kind of rhetoric has less and less resonance, it’s not going to do the trick anymore,” says the Shifter, who was in Cuba in December when normalization plans were announced. “It’s very hard to find anyone for whom that rhetoric has any echo these days.” 

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