Cuba courted in diplomatic push on Venezuela crisis

Cuba courted in diplomatic push on Venezuela crisis

Colombian president flies to Havana to seek support for regional initiative

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, was set to fly to Cuba on Sunday on a mission to convince Havana to support a regional diplomatic push to staunch Venezuela’s growing crisis, which has left 90 dead after three months of protests.

The initiative, which Argentina and Mexico are understood to support, is controversial but potentially effective as socialist Cuba is Venezuela’s strongest ally and its intelligence services are understood to work as close advisers to Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president.

“Santos is one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who knows the three key players well,” said one person with an understanding of the situation. “He knows Maduro and Venezuela, he knows Raúl Castro, and he knows Donald Trump and the US state department.”

The diplomatic initiative comes at a critical time for Venezuela, as Mr Maduro moves to rewrite the Opec country’s constitution to cement the ruling Socialist party’s control by installing Soviet-style communes. An early gauge of the regional diplomacy’s success will be if Mr Maduro cancels the July 30 constitutional convention to create a legislative superbody.

Venezuela’s opposition on Sunday mounted a symbolic referendum against the convention, which polls show three-quarters of Venezuelans oppose. The convention is widely seen as a point of no return for Venezuela.

Early indications suggested the referendum was passing peacefully. Opposition activists posted photographs on social media of long lines of people outside impromptu polling stations, not only in Venezuela but in towns and cities worldwide, from Australia to Malaysia to Saudi Arabia and Italy, where Venezuelans living abroad were invited to vote.

Julio Borges, the head of the National Assembly, or parliament, told a news conference in Caracas on Sunday he hoped the exercise would serve as “a great earthquake, that shakes the conscience of those in power”.

The government has played down the popular vote, which is non-binding. It says the real election will come on July 30, although some analysts have suggested there is still time for Mr Maduro to change his mind.

“To the extent that the [opposition referendum] prompts even more . . . pushback . . .[it] could prompt [Maduro] to back down,” Risa Grais-Targow, analyst at Eurasia, the risk consultancy, wrote on Friday. But “if Maduro does hold the vote on 30 July, it will represent a new apex in the country’s ongoing political crisis. It will also test the loyalty of the security apparatus, as the opposition will likely mobilise significant protests across the country”.

Mr Santos has worked closely with Havana, Washington and Caracas over the past six years as part of Colombia’s peace process between the government and the Farc guerrilla group. But his Cuba visit, part of a long-schedule commercial mission to Havana, is also a sign of mounting international exasperation over Venezuela.

At the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg, Mauricio Macri, the Argentine president, backed by Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, implored other heads of state to “take note of the situation in Venezuela, where they do not support human rights”.

The crisis in Venezuela has drained the country’s foreign reserves with figures released on Friday showing the central bank’s coffers had dropped below $10bn for the first time in 15 years.

The fall in reserves is likely to rekindle fears that Caracas might default on its debt obligations this year. The state and its oil company PDVSA are due to make capital and interest repayments of $3.7bn in the fourth quarter.

Despite widespread concern over Venezeula’s plight, there has been little concrete action from other countries besides the US and Brazil. Washington has placed targeted financial sanctions on some Venezuelan officials while Brazil suspended sales of tear gas to the Venezuelan government.

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, last month said the US was building a “robust list” of other individuals to sanction. A more extreme US policy option that has also been discussed in Washington is to ban sales of Venezuelan oil into the US market.

US refiners have lobbied the White House against including crude imports in any broader potential sanctions package as Venezuela is the US’s second-biggest foreign supplier to the gulf coast. A ban could also have an impact on domestic fuel prices.

Cuba would make an unusual ally in an internationally-mediated attempt to broker peace in Venezuela as it receives subsidised oil from Caracas in return for medical services. Relations with Washington have also cooled after Mr Trump partially rolled back the US rapprochement in June, courting support from conservative Cuban-American legislators in Washington.

But Havana could usefully offer safe haven exile for Mr Maduro’s senior officials who, with a bolt hole to flee to, would no longer need to fight to the last.

 

 

Menciones: 

At the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg, Mauricio Macri, the Argentine president, backed by Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, implored other heads of state to “take note of the situation in Venezuela, where they do not support human rights”.

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