Venezuela a wedge between US and Cuba as relationship thaws

Cuban president Raúl Castro and Barack Obama attend Summit of Americas in Panama

A girl stands behind a Venezuelan flag and underneath a sign reading “Respect Dissidence in Venezuela” during a protest in Panama City ahead of this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

A girl stands behind a Venezuelan flag and underneath a sign reading “Respect Dissidence in Venezuela” during a protest in Panama City ahead of this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

 

The recent détente between Cuba and the United States faces its first public test this weekend when presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama, at which Venezuela is likely to be the source of most discord.

The two men shared a handshake at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in 2013 but this is the first time that leaders from their countries will sit together at the gathering of all 35 nations in the western hemisphere which starts its triennial meeting today.

Though there are no formal plans for a bilateral meeting between the two men on the summit’s margins, they will have several chances to talk one-on-one over the two-day gathering. Their diplomats are expected to intensify months of negotiations as both sides seek to end the cold war across the Florida Straits.

Years of isolation

At the last Americas summit three years ago in Colombia, the US leader cut an isolated figure as even local allies lined up to denounce Cuba’s continued exclusion from the meeting. This weekend’s gathering was facing a boycott unless it was invited.

Obama’s decision to start normalising ties last December allows him to avoid diplomatic embarrassment after Juan Carlos Varela, Panama’s president, went ahead and invited Cuba. The thawing of relations since last year’s prisoner swap has continued and Obama was poised on the eve of the summit to remove Cuba from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Last December he ordered a review of Cuba’s inclusion on the list, which also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan. Ronald Reagan added the island in 1982 for its support of Marxist insurgencies around the Caribbean. Removal would lift one of the last formal obstacles to the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two countries.

But despite the likelihood of a highly symbolic handshake, the US risks seeing some of the goodwill garnered by its opening towards Havana dissipated by the latest diplomatic spat with Venezuela.

Obama’s issuing of an executive order last month declaring Venezuela “a national security threat” was poorly received across much of Latin America, despite growing regional impatience with president Nicolás Maduro’s handling of the deepening political and economic crisis in Venezuela.

Responding to regional dissatisfaction, the White House later clarified it did not actually consider Venezuela a threat to its national security but US law required the declaration in order to allow it to sanction seven Venezuelan officials it accused of human rights violations.

The clarification has not stopped Maduro seizing on the US measure to mobilise his supporters, claiming the White House is preparing to intervene militarily in Venezuela. He has promised to hand Obama a petition at the summit with 10 million signatures demanding that he lift the sanctions.

Despite the thaw with Washington, Havana has said it will stand by Venezuela, its closest ally, which supplies its ramshackle economy with heavily subsidised oil.

“The détente is going to be somewhat superficial,” warns Larry Birns of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington based think tank.

“We already have the US stepping up its position on Venezuela. At the same time, Raúl Castro is saying Cuba will not turn its back on Venezuela. Havana is not going to become accommodating of Washington’s reservations over Venezuela. If there is to be any fundamental change in the US relationship with Cuba, the US would have taken some steps to modify and harmonise its relationship with Venezuela.”

The sanctions row also risks overshadowing Obama’s other recent efforts to reshape US policy towards the region.

As well as the opening with Cuba, he has his recent immigration policy change to point to, as well as his quiet support for the peace process between the Colombian government and the Farc rebels, who are negotiating in Havana.

He also pledged to spend $1 billion (€920 million) on development in Central America in response to the crisis of undocumented minors crossing into the US.

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