The alliance between Cuba and Venezuela has lost prominence in recent years as the former normalized its diplomatic relations with the United States while the latter doubled down on a self-described anti-imperialist policy.
Now Donald Trump’s presidency threatens to bring the two countries closer together again.
Trump, who assumed power last week, has pledged to reverse the Cuba policy of his predecessor “unless the Castro regime meets our demands”.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state and the former boss of ExxonMobil, has an acrimonious history when it comes to Venezuela.
Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president, has said Trump — a fellow illiberal strongman — can be no worse than Barack Obama. But that’s probably not how the Cubans see it.
The United States’ involvement in Latin America goes back to the nineteenth century, when Spanish colonies fought for their independence. The young American republic proclaimed it would no longer accept European interference in the Americas: the famous Monroe Doctrine. Thus American troops intervened in Cuba in 1906-8 and 1912 and the United States controlled the island’s foreign policy from 1901-34.
America’s role grew in the twentieth century, when it competed with the Soviet Union for influence around the world.
While American policy was not always pro-democratic or anti-authoritarian, it was consistently anti-communist. Opposition to the United States took many forms, not always Soviet or communist; it was nevertheless unified in its resistance to the pre-war status quo of Western dominance.
The Monroe Doctrine, combined with Cold War policy, manifested itself in Cuba, once more, when the United States supported the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. By 1960, the United States bought 74 percent of the island’s exports and supplied 65 percent of its imports.
At the same time, in Venezuela, dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was granted America’s Legion of Merit, the highest award it confers on foreigners.
Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government in 1959 and duly attracted Soviet support. Having survived a bungled American-led invasion two years later and numerous subsequent assassination attempts, Castro sought to extend his revolutionary influence to other parts of Latin America. In 1961, his support for anti-government guerrillas in Venezuela resulted in all ties between Caracas and Havana being severed.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, a decade of military dictatorship had been replaced in 1958 by the Punto Fijo Pact, which committed parties to respect the outcome of subsequent national elections.
The pact enshrined the importance of the two dominant political parties, the center-left and the right, while ostracizing the communists.
The country maintained an American-friendly form of democratic government for forty years, until 1998, when Hugo Chávez swept to power.
Chávez won the election that year by attacking the two-party system, which had resulted in economic mismanagement, political unaccountability and corruption.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Castro was in need of economic support from another source. When Chávez appeared on the stage, he took the new Venezuelan leader under his wing.
Chávez saw in Cuba an example of a successful revolution and an expression of the Bolivarian ideal of regional integration, nationalism and cultural independence.
Cuba also taught him that the military could play a constructive role in his political project.
Together, Castro and Chávez set about reasserting an anti-capitalist bulwark against what was seen as American hegemony in the region. They set the trend for the “Pink Tide”: a wave of leftist governments which at its height governed three out of four Latin Americans.
The Castro-Chávez partnership coincided with an oil boom in Venezuela, which would make the relationship lopsided. Venezuela would trade 100,000 barrels of oil per day (two thirds of Cuban oil) in exchange for Cuban doctors and nurses working in its rural villages and shanty towns.
Such aid, and Chávez’ own social programs, reduced poverty in Venezuela from 50 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 2012 and helped to maintain voters’ loyalty to the socialist regime.
2013 brought a turnaround in the relationship. Chávez died. Oil prices plummeted from a high of $130 per barrel to $20. Fidel Castro withdrew from political life.
Chávez’s successor, Maduro, lauded the relationship as “a profound, longstanding, strategic fraternity by which we have become a single people, a single nation, as dreamed by the liberating fathers.”
But diminishing Venezuelan oil reserves (a 15 percent drop in the last year) meant a reduction in Cuban support was inevitable.
President Obama’s reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014 helped ease American-Cuban relations around the same time. Commercial flights, exports and tourism all followed.
Relations between Venezuela and the United States remain poisonous, however. While Chávez decried President George W. Bush’s “democracy of bombs”, Maduro has accused Obama of waging an economic war on Venezuela. Since 2015, following a shift to a more authoritarian approach, the Bolivarian republic has been subjected to American sanctions.
It is not only in their relations with the United States that Cuba and Venezuela have diverged. Their relations with other countries in Latin America have also taken different paths.
Cuba, for example, played a key role in reaching a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. Maduro, on the other hand, deported over a thousand Colombians and closed the border, supposedly to stop smugglers.
Maduro met with Fidel Castro last year to cement key bilateral arrangements until 2030.
But then Fidel died and Maduro’s position at home now looks precarious. The Chavistas have lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time in sixteen years. The president faces a potential recall referendum in a country that is experiencing ever-rising rates of murder and shortages of medicine and food.
Cuba continues to profess support for the Maduro government and would be loathe to loose an ally. But the two sides are clearly growing apart.
At the end of the Cold War, Cuba experienced what was euphemistically known as a “special period” littered with blackouts, fuel and food shortages only to eventually be saved by Venezuelan support.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. An increasingly isolated Venezuela will hope its generosity is not forgotten even as Cuba embarks on a policy of civilized coexistence with the United States.