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A joint Washington-Havana effort in Venezuela?

The most severe and consequential crisis in the Americas is taking place in Venezuela. The lack of resolution of the current situation will be not only damaging for pro- and anti-government forces in Venezuela, but also for Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States.

A downgraded and unpredictable stalemate will have grave costs for both Venezuelans and outsiders in the region. Institutional instability will exacerbate existing social polarization; out of control economics will sooner than later hurt the oil-extracting capacity of the country; political chaos will very probably end up with a very disturbing role by the armed forces; and domestic  volatility will definitely have spill-over effects abroad, particularly, and in the short term, in the Andean ridge. In this context the effort by the Union of South American nations (UNASUR) to facilitate talks between the administration of President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition coalition—the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)—is a very important first step towards lessening tensions, but there is still a long road to go in terms of finding a lasting solution to the on-going crisis.

Thus, there is a need for an additional commitment in the search for a political closure to the current deadlock. The two countries that can really make a difference now are the United States and Cuba. They both have clear stakes at play in Venezuela. Oil, ideology, and migration are significant factors that somehow are intertwined in the relationship between these counterparts: the three countries interact with different, but not necessarily always antagonistically, interests in the Caribbean Basin. At this stage, neither Washington nor Cuba needs a new hotspot in the vicinity: their mutual core concern is geopolitical and strategic. By now Washington should have realized that regime change in Venezuela is a recipe for disaster, while Havana should have recognized that it must use some of its remaining leverage vis-a-vis Caracas to avoid the consolidation of a far more radicalized government. 

Maybe, and just for a brief window of opportunity, there is some room for a concerted, quite diplomacy between the United States and Cuba regarding Venezuela. UNASUR, the United States and Cuba all have certain legitimate national interests at stake there and not many of them are incompatible. A combination of incentives and restraints, patience and demands, political carrots and diplomatic sticks can be designed over the medium and long term. There is not a quick fix, nor a magic bullet when dealing with the Venezuelan crisis. The core issue at this moment should be respect for human rights, the establishment of a realistic political dialogue, and the commitment of all domestic parties to democratic strengthening and against authoritarianism.

President Barack Obama is in a position to regenerate a promising new dialogue with Latin America. Unilateralism will not work in managing the situation in Venezuela: Washington cannot and won’t “stabilize” the country alone. For the first time in more than half a century Washington and Havana can positively interact to support a reasonable, non-violent solution to a major crisis in the Americas. The experiment of a trilateral diplomacy between UNASUR, the United States and Cuba with respect to Venezuela may show an unprecedented level of maturity in the continent. In the end, the key question is: are the countries in the Americas willing to enter the XXI century or they prefer to act with the worst reflexes of the Cold War? Paradoxically, Venezuela is today a test-case of both alternatives.

Tokatlian is director of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Universidad Di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Ph.D. (1991) in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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