TAMPA — Both sides of the Cuba debate are citing the latest crisis in South America to make their case, saying the uprising in Venezuela provides clear evidence that the U.S. should alternately continue or halt its long-standing Cuban travel and trade embargo.
Cut off the crucial partnership between these two nations — tens of thousands of skilled workers go to Venezuela in return for $3.5 billion in oil for Cuba each year — then tighten the embargo even further and watch the Castro regime collapse, one side argues.
Among those espousing this view are people who have taken to the streets of Tampa and other Florida cities in support of anti-government protesters in Venezuela who have risen up this month in sometimes fatal opposition to the government of President Nicolàs Maduro.
Some on the other side of the debate shake their heads at this notion. The current unrest in Venezuela, they say, and its potential fallout for Cuba provides an opening to end the embargo once and for all. The U.S., they say, should help Cuba develop its own oil industry.
Either way, if the uprising ends or even strains the mutual dependency between Cuba and Venezuela, it stands to fundamentally change relations between the U.S. and this island nation just 90 miles off Florida’s shores.
“It would be a failed state,” said Jorge Piñon, interim director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. “You have to consider, is it in the better interest of the U.S. to have Cuba as a failed state or as a state you can work with in transition into democracy?”
Cuba and Venezuela have been partners since the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced he was guiding his country toward full socialism. Chavez struck the oil-for-professionals deal in 2000 with his self-professed mentor, Fidel Castro.
Today, Cuba sends Venezuela 30,000 to 50,000 skilled workers such as doctors, nurses and technicians.
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If the protests succeed, and a new Venezuelan government was to end the barter, Cuba could not pay its petroleum-rich partner for the 150,000 barrels a day of oil it needs to fuel its economy.
The Cuban government has announced intentions to explore for oil in 2015 but oil experts say it would take five to seven years after a supply is located to ramp up.
Cuba has been through such an economic crisis before. It was called “The Special Period,” the decade following the collapse of Cuba’s previous oil patron — the Soviet Union.
Infrastructure crumbled. Citizens went hungry.
Cuba survived the crisis, in part through the bailout by Venezuela with its oil-for-professionals deal.
This time, Piñon said, things would be different.
Piñon was part of a team of scholars at the Brookings Institution who in 2009 released the report, “Cuba: A New policy of Critical and Constructive Engagement,” which urged the U.S. to normalize relations with Cuba — going so far as to recommend helping Cuba with oil exploration. This approach, the report said, is better for U.S. interests than Cuba’s continued reliance on Venezuela.
Pinon said he and a team of scholars spent 18 months running through different scenarios of another oil-driven economic collapse for Cuba.
“There is no one who can help them now,” Pinon said. “Cuba has spoken to the Brazilians, the Angolans, Russia and Algeria — the four countries politically aligned with Cuba with crude oil exports. None have the capacity to give away that much oil.”
Not even communist China seems willing to provide the oil or the capital needed to purchase it, Pinon said.
What’s more, facing this potential financial crisis, Cuba would do so with a Castro regime that is much older.
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At 87, Fidel already has aged himself out of power. Raul is 82.
Who would succeed them raises concerns, Pinon said: “The vacuum that would be created could be taken over by drug cartels.”
Perhaps not directly, he said, by committing billions of dollars to buy oil. Rather, through bribery of a politically weak post-Castro government, with an eye toward transshipment points for smuggling to the U.S.
Piñon favors an immediate policy shift to constructive engagement with a Cuban government the U.S. knows rather than risk dealing with strangers and a nation in chaos.
On the other hand, Tampa attorney and longtime pro-embargo activist Ralph Fernandez said the possibility of a failed state is exactly why the U.S. should clamp down on economic sanctions against Cuba rather than loosen them if Venezuela breaks the partnership.
He said that once the Castros are out of power and Communism is swept from the island, Cuban Americans from throughout the United States would flock there to help rebuild.
“There is a ton of political exile money in the United States,” Fernandez said. “These are people who are staunchly opposed to investing in Cuba now but would do so if Cuba was free of the Castros.”
Maura Barrios of Tampa, a longtime activist for normalized relations with Cuba who has visited the island a dozen times, scoffed at both assessments of Cuba without Venezuela.
Neither the Cuban government nor its citizens would welcome U.S. interests back unless the current government was recognized and the embargo was lifted, Barrios said.
Before the Cuban revolution, U.S. companies controlled the island’s sugar, railway and petroleum industries and held majority interests in the telephone and electrical services, and U.S. banks held one-quarter of all Cuba deposits.
Cuban citizens are taught that the U.S. gained this control because Cuban presidents agreed to serve as U.S. puppets in return for power and money.
“Fidel is smart,” Barrios said. “He has never let the people forget why the revolution took place. It was a reaction to 50 years of U.S. domination.”
“Cuba Si Yankee No,” Barrios said, was the rallying cry of the Cuban revolution.
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Still, Barrios doesn’t buy into the failed state scenario. New leaders are poised to replace the Castros.
“That system is institutionalized from top to bottom,” Barrios said. “There are plenty of people who could fill that void.”
During the post-Soviet Special Period, she said, Cuba handled its transportation shortfall by purchasing 1 million bicycles from China. And a strict food rationing program was put in place to make up for the slowdown in fuel-starved agricultural production.
“Cubans like to call themselves the cockroaches of the Americas,” she quipped. “That means they always survive. The government will do what is necessary.”
Another scenario comes from Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a Washington D.C. lobbying group promoting democracy in Cuba.
During the Special Period, Claver-Carone said, Cuba began making economic reforms. For instance, farmers were allowed to sell surplus production and some self-employment was permitted.
Fidel Castro made these exceptions, he said, to retain power. When the people get antsy, the philosophy goes, promise them changes.
Recent reforms started when Venezuela’s Chavez grew ill in 2011. Raul Castro, Claver-Carone said, knew the partnership would be in jeopardy once Chavez died.
All this argues for tightening the embargo, Claver-Carone said.
“It’s hard to believe anyone would think a 55-year dictatorship would do anything for reasons other than to stay in power,” he said. “If they believed in democracy and open markets, they wouldn’t have headed a totalitarian regime for 55 years.”