As Washington and Moscow face off over Venezuela, the Caribbean has become a focal point for global politics for the first time since the Cold War.
The U.S. and its allies have recognized Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela and demanded that Nicolás Maduro step aside, doubling down on sanctions against the dictator and his allies in Havana. Mr. Guaidó has called on Venezuelans to turn out on May 1 for what he hopes will be the largest demonstration in the country’s history. Yet Mr. Maduro is standing his ground, backed financially by China and Russia, and receiving military and security assistance from Cuba and Russia.
For the Trump administration, all roads in the Western Hemisphere lead to Caracas. Left to accelerate, the breakdown of governance and civilized life in Venezuela can only create more refugees, enrich arms smugglers and drug cartels, allow forces like Hezbollah to insinuate themselves more deeply in the region. On the other hand, a return to some kind of stability under a pro-business government would initiate an economic recovery that would help the people of Venezuela and their neighbors alike, and deprive the terror cartels of much of their arms and funding. Crucially, if Venezuelan oil production recovers, it would help stabilize world energy markets and significantly increase American leverage with both Russia and Iran.
Mr. Maduro’s downfall would also be a major political victory for the Trump administration. Russia, however, hopes to repeat in Venezuela the humiliation it inflicted on the West in Syria. It has increased its support for Mr. Maduro, sending him military personnel and equipment and helping Venezuela evade U.S. sanctions. An American “win” in Venezuela would send a clear message around the world. So would a loss.
Domestically, overthrowing the socialist regime would please Mr. Trump’s base as well as demonstrate that his foreign-policy team can do more than talk tough. It could particularly please voters in Florida, whose support is essential to GOP hopes in 2020. A humiliating setback ahead of the election would be a major blow. Team Trump is well aware of the stakes.
Cuba plays a crucial role in the crisis. The Obama administration, influenced by archaic left-wing talking points, might have hoped normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations would lead Havana to step away from Venezuela. That was never in the cards. For Cuba, Venezuela replaced the Soviet Union as the source of subsidies, without which the island’s socialist system cannot provide even a minimal standard of living for its people. Cuba continues to regard engagement with the U.S. as a danger rather than an opportunity. Havana consented to President Obama’s offer to normalize relations because it was desperate for greater tourist and remittance income as Venezuela’s economy deteriorated and its subsidies began to shrink.
The continued collapse of Venezuela’s economy means the Cuban regime is also facing disaster. From the Trump administration’s point of view, this is a historic opportunity. If Cuba—whose regime defied American presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan and beyond—abandons socialism on Mr. Trump’s watch, the president’s prestige at home and abroad would soar.
The hope of historic victories in Cuba and Venezuela and the fear of a costly defeat have combined to persuade the Trump administration to adopt some of the most far-reaching economic sanctions ever imposed. Washington hopes sanctions on the Central Bank of Venezuela, for example, will prevent the bank from funding the Maduro government through the sale of its $5.1 billion gold reserves or by borrowing from international financial institutions.
The administration also hopes to increase pressure on Cuba by cracking down on U.S. tourism and fund transfers and by imposing sanctions on companies that ship Venezuelan oil there. In a move that electrified hard-line anticommunist Cuban-Americans, the administration announced plans to allow parts of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act to go into effect May 2. This would allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign corporations in American courts for using property that was confiscated by the Castro regime. Executives of those companies and their family members could also lose their ability to visit the U.S.
American allies in Europe and Canada are already seething over the imposition of extraterritorial sanctions targeted at Iran. No U.S. president before Mr. Trump has been willing to impose sanctions that alienate powerful allies to this degree over Caribbean policy. That Washington is pressing ahead suggests how high a priority Venezuela has become for the administration. If Russia continues to back Mr. Maduro, this crisis could escalate dramatically. And once again—60 years after Fidel Castro stormed into power in Havana—Cuba will be right in the middle of it.