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MIAMI — Will the United States be hashing out Venezuela policy with Russia and Cuba?
Venezuela's critical situation is at a standstill: While pressure is mounting for its president Nicolás Maduro to step down, opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s recent push to oust Maduro failed to trigger the military defections needed to take control of institutions such as the country's security forces.
Since Guaidó invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency, the U.S. has thrown its full weight behind him while Russia and Cuba have increased their support for Maduro, creating a clash among the powers.
Trump changes stance?
After Guaidó’s failed uprising, Trump lashed out at Cuba on Twitter, threatening its officials with the “highest-level sanctions” if they “do not immediately cease military and other operations” in Venezuela.
But one day later, Trump seemed to soften his stance and use a carrot-and-stick approach toward Cuba, saying during an interview with Fox Business Network: “With the right moves, Cuba could do very well. We could open it up but we’re going to end up closing it up if they don’t get out of Venezuela.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo surprised many when he said in an interview Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that the administration is working with the Cuban government on Venezuela.
“We’re working with the Cubans to try and get an outcome that will let the Venezuelans have this opportunity,” Pompeo said.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the department's officials met in Washington April 29 with Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuba’s director-general of U.S. affairs, but the meeting was described as a courtesy call at the working level.
"They’re not averse to opening conversations with countries that are allied to Maduro," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said. "The U.S. wants to get supporters of Maduro to back off."
Meanwhile, some analysts think Russia and the U.S. are engaging more on Venezuela after spending months accusing one another of interfering in the South American country.
On Friday, Trump and Putin spoke on the phone for an hour. The two leaders spent much of the call focused on Venezuela, the White House said.
Trump later said in a news conference that Putin assured him that “he’s not looking to get involved in Venezuela,” and that Russia is seeking a resolution to the turmoil.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Pompeo met Monday in Finland.
“I do think some of the content of discussions between U.S. and Russian officials has been to try to convey to the Russians some form of assurances that this American call for the Russians to step down and stay out is not tantamount to expropriation of Russian assets,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said.
Why is Cuba interested?
Cuba and Venezuela have had a tight alliance over the past two decades. Cuba sends thousands of medical workers to Venezuela in exchange for oil. The collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry has caused oil shipments to drop from 113,000 barrels a day to about 45,000, analysts say.
Fernando Cutz, former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, said that Cubans "don’t seem at all inclined to negotiate over Venezuela."
Cuba, he added, "has everything to lose" if there is a change in leadership that does not maintain Cuba and Venezuela's current relationship.
Cash-strapped Cuba is already experiencing shortages in basic foods, and terminating oil shipments would likely result in widespread power outages if it does not find an alternative. This would have devastating effects on Cuba's economy.
The U.S. has repeatedly said there are more than 20,000 Cuban security operatives in Venezuela directly supporting Maduro. Most analysts agree there is an important presence but say the numbers are a fraction of that.
Cuban officials have constantly rebuffed the claim. Cuba maintains roughly 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela and 94 percent are involved in medical missions, Johanna Tablada, an official in the foreign ministry, said during a press conference last week. Though she didn't elaborate on who the other six percent are, Cuban officials have said they have no troops in Venezuela and don't engage in security operations.
There are other efforts to reach out to Cuba about Venezuela. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Friday on behalf of a regional block of countries known as the Lima Group about how they can work together to resolve Venezuela's crisis.
Why is Russia interested?
Earlier last week, Pompeo said Maduro had planned to flee Venezuela but Russia asked him to remain in the country — a claim Russia and Maduro have denied.
There are Russian forces in Venezuela as part of a military partnership and in late March, two military planes carrying about 100 more personnel arrived in Caracas.
The relationship between the two countries has an economic component.
In recent years, Russian state oil company Rosneft has become Venezuela’s biggest oil partner and lender. Russia owns Venezuelan oil fields, which it got in exchange for loans worth billions of dollars.
Almost half of Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA, was put up as collateral for Venezuelan debt to Rosneft. Venezuela also owes Russia billions for Russian military equipment it purchased.
“But as in any country, ownership only is as good as the government that’s guaranteeing property rights,” Rojansky said.
He said Russia has a reasonable concern that a transition to Guaidó would wipe out its property rights. A future government led by the opposition could take the position that it doesn’t owe Russia anything after the country opposed its rise and made its life more difficult.
For Russia, there is also a geopolitical value of having a presence in the Western Hemisphere.
During the post-cold war period, Russia has been concerned about the United States being the sole dominant power in the world.
“Russians have had this concern that the U.S. has used and will use that power to change regimes it doesn’t like into regimes that it thinks it likes, by force,” Rojansky said.
The Russians have watched what they believe were American-driven regime-change operations close to home, such as in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and the Balkans.
“So for that reason, they are very nervous that this pattern could continue indefinitely,” Rojansky said.
For Russia, Venezuela is also an opportunity to strike a blow in the Western Hemisphere after Washington backed an anti-Kremlin revolution in Ukraine.
Has the U.S. gone too far?
National security adviser John Bolton tweeted Friday that “without foreign interference, the democratic process in Venezuela would be underway today.” Bolton was referring to Russia and Cuba, but some see the U.S. as interfering as well.
The U.S. has taken provocative steps since Bolton took over. “Bolton is a key player. He’s certainly comes out of the Cold War experience and for him, Cuba is important,” Shifter said.
In Venezuela, there are those who welcome the diplomatic and economic pressure the U.S. is using against Maduro while some remain wary of a U.S. military intervention and interference. Since January, the administration has been continuously floating around the threat that “all options are on the table.”
The idea of U.S. troops could create conflicts within the Venezuelan military and alienate top officials who are unhappy with Maduro but reject the idea of U.S. boots on the ground.
“It would be wise for the U.S. to pull back, support Guaidó, but do it in a way that’s not counterproductive,” Shifter said.