TAMPA — From Tampa to the Senate floor in Washington, and throughout the United States, Cuban Americans who defend continued isolation of the Communist island nation are throwing their support behind Venezuelan Americans in their efforts to bring order to the South American country.
With 55 years of experience battling a socialist government, these Cuban Americans believe they have the knowhow Venezuelan Americans need to back an opposition party that has made waves in Venezuela since the launch of student protests blaming the government for poverty and corruption.
Foreign policy analysts, on the other hand, question whether any moves from U.S. soil can help. Instead, these voices say, the U.S. should step aside and urge mediation by an interested party closer to the turmoil — Brazil.
The United States’ long-standing travel and trade embargo against Cuba has left it with an image as a bully across Latin America, in the view of Cuban native Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former policy advisor for the Castro regime who now lives in Denver.
And Antonio Martinez II, a New York attorney who deals with international sanctions compliance, said the U.S. image was tarnished further by the Pentagon’s role in a 2002 coup attempt against late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“The fact is that the U.S. influence is not that great in Venezuela,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs. “The two countries most suited to shape Venezuela’s actions are Brazil and Cuba.”
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Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, Brazilian minister of foreign affairs, has asked that the Venezuelan government and its opposition party begin a dialogue with one another. But Brazil has taken no direct action.
Hakim said that’s just what the U.S. should urge.
Venezuela trusts Brazil, Hakim said, and it is in Brazil’s national interest to encourage stability in its neighbor.
Escalating protests and violence could lead to a mass migration of Venezuelans into Brazil, causing instability there and potentially damaging the economy.
Because Brazil has a strong relationship with Cuba, Hakim added, it might persuade Cuban leader Raul Castro to take on the role of peace maker.
Brazil is Cuba’s third largest trade partner behind Venezuela and China and an estimated 7,400 Cuban doctors are currently employed in Brazil.
And Raul Castro has a strong relationship with Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro.
“Cuba has every reason to want to see a more stable Venezuela so they can continue to receive subsidies,” said Hakim, referring to $3.5 billion in oil per year Cuba receives for sending 30,000-50,000 professionals such as doctors and nurses to Venezuela.
A full-blown civil war might reduce oil shipments. A government led by the opposition party, said attorney Martinez, could completely cut off Cuba.
Hakim acknowledged rumors that Cuba has secretly sent troops into Venezuela to quell the protests through violence, but he cited Cuba’s role in peace talks between the Colombian government and revels there to argue that military force doesn’t fit with Cuba’s recent international policy.
This is why Venezuelan native and Tampa resident Norma Reno considers partnership with Cuban Americans as a key to peace in her native land.
Cuba’s government, like Venezuela’s Reno said, cannot be trusted.
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About five years ago, as the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba grew, Reno joined Tampa’s Casa de Cuba, an organization that has worked toward bringing democracy to Cuba since the 1980s.
If the leaders of the two nations saw opportunity to solidify their repressive governments, Reno said, so should supporters of democracy there.
In the wake of the recent Venezuela protests, she said, Casa de Cuba has put aside its own cause focused its resources on Venezuela.
“They say that they have not been able to do much to help Cuba,” Reno said. “So perhaps they can help us.”
Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney who has supported Casa de Cuba since its inception, said, “The fact is we got involved too late in Cuba. By the time our fight began Castro was already fully entrenched in the Cuban government.
“But that is not the case in Venezuela. We can inspire and create change there. It is not too late.”
Casa de Cuba has provided Venezuelan opposition supporters with full access to its center at 2506 W. Curtis St.
Reno and Fernandez said Casa de Cuba leaders are teaching these new allies how to organize demonstrations, speak to the media, lobby elected officials, raise money, support clandestine missions, make contacts abroad and distinguish between supporters and spies.
“It has been a perfect relationship,” Reno said.
She also welcomes the support Cuban Americans have provided the Venezuelan opposition at the federal level.
Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, teamed with Sen. Bob Menendez, R-New Jersey, on a resolution seeking sanctions against Venezuela’s government. The resolution calls for U.S. condemnation of the Venezuelan government, a third party investigation into actions of the Maduro administration, and freezing U.S. visas and bank accounts of any Venezuelan guilty of crimes against the protestors.
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U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, sponsored a resolution of her own calling for the U.S. government to condemn the Venezuelan government. And Florida’s U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat, has asked that Venezuelans currently in the U.S. be allowed to stay until the turmoil ends.
Analysts including Lopez-Levy, the former Cuban policy adviser, say tough economic sanctions could help Venezuelan President Maduro by playing into his argument that opposition to his administration is fueled by U.S. interests.
Attorney Martinez sees another concern; The resolutions are sponsored by Rubio, Martinez and Ros-Lehtinen, all of whom are among the most vocal anti-Castro leaders in the U.S.
Martinez said their involvement, coming on the heels of polls showing the majority of the U.S. , in favor of , improved relations with Cuba, may point to ulterior motives.
By vilifying the Venezuelan government and tying Cuba to it, the pendulum could swing back to the side of preserving the embargo against Cuba, he said.
Maduro, in other words, could portray the sanctions as the result of a grudge against Cuba.
Maduro recently lashed out at Rubio, by calling him “the craziest of the crazies,” Martinez said.
Ros-Lehtinen rebutted that argument in an email to the Tribune.
“No matter which member of Congress introduces a resolution to promote democracy in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro would still blame the United States for the problems he and his regime have created,” she said.
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Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue agreed that the Venezuelan government is “horrific,” saying if the world were not already watching so closely Maduro’s administration “would crack down much harder.”
His issue with the resolutions is not who sponsored them but rather the language. They focus on punishment rather than mediation.
“The mood in Latin America and the broader international community seems to favor efforts to encourage a dialogue between the government and opposition in Venezuela,” Hakim said. “The idea is to stop the escalation of violence and turmoil, and allow for a compromise solution.”
If Brazil agrees to mediate, Lopez-Levy said, the U.S. must practice patience.
He recalled that former President John F. Kennedy was given that same advice by Thomas Mann, a top Latin American adviser in the State Department to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
The advice was largely ignored.
“Thomas Mann said that rather than sending an invasion or pushing for sanctions, the U.S., should work to make sure Cuba has free and fair elections,” Lopez-Levy said. “Mann admitted that Fidel Castro may win the first few elections, but at some point Castro would lose.”
Lopez-Levy noted that more than 50 years have passed since that conversation and the Castro regime remains in power.
“Positive change takes time,” he said.
Tampa’s Reno called Venezuela a marathon not a sprint, but added that her experience with Casa de Cuba has shown her the U.S. needs to keep pressing.
“The current Venezuelan government lies, is corrupt and will do whatever it can to stay in power,” she said. “If they promise change, until we see that change happen we have to keep on going.
“I want Venezuela to have a good government. The people at Case de Cuba understand that pain. “