Cuba Says Maduro Must Be at Negotiating Table to Fix Venezuela

(Bloomberg) -- Cuba is willing to help negotiate a peaceful end to Venezuela’s political crisis if President Nicolas Maduro requests it, one of Havana’s top diplomats said.

The so-called Lima Group of nations sought to enlist the communist-run Caribbean island in brokering a solution to the standoff last week after opposition leader Juan Guaido’s attempt to overthrow the embattled president failed. Any role Cuba plays will be scrutinized by Maduro’s foes due to the country’s close ties with Chavismo over the past two decades.

Cuba Says Maduro Must Be at Negotiating Table to Fix Venezuela

“We are ready to help,” Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, head of the U.S. section at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said during an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. Maduro, however, would have to be at the table. “It’s not Cuba, as it’s not the Lima Group, who should say who’s the leader of Venezuela.”

The diplomat’s comments come two days after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reached out to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, and as the administration of President Donald Trump tightens sanctions on Havana while refusing to rule out military options in Venezuela.

De Cossio said his government is feeling pinched by the White House moves, warning that Cuba-U.S. relations have soured sharply since Washington began blaming it for keeping Maduro in power.

‘Open Hostility’

While Trump has been slowly rolling back the opening to Cuba made during President Barack Obama’s final years in office, de Cossio said Havana is now being used as a scapegoat for the failure to unseat Maduro.

“Just a few months ago we would describe the relationship as in regression,” he said. “Today, if we follow above all the statements by the National Security Council of the United States, we can speak of open hostility toward Cuba -- an open attempt of regime change.”

The White House accuses Havana of controlling Maduro’s security apparatus. Cuba denies this, saying all 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela are doctors and nurses. It adds the crisis is being used as a pretext to crack down on the communist government and divert attention from Guaido’s inability so far to seize power.

Last week, Trump riled allies by activating Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, a controversial section of the U.S. embargo on Cuba allowing lawsuits over property confiscated in the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. The move, along with other policies, is meant to curb foreign investment on the island.

“We have seen a slowdown,” de Cossio said, adding he doesn’t expect Cuba to face the same kind of hardship it endured in the 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “What we will never be able to measure is how many companies, how many people, did not go to Cuba because of this.”

On the Ropes

Though still in charge of Venezuela, Maduro is increasingly unpopular. His approval rating has fallen to 12.9 percent, a record low for a sitting president, according to a mid-April survey by Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis.

Maduro’s ouster would likely bring an end to much-needed shipments of Venezuelan oil to Cuba, but the country has diversified its economy enough to survive the blow, de Cossio said. Despite ideological differences, it maintains ties with regional heavyweights like Brazil and Argentina, as well as global players like Russia and China.

Working groups on immigration and law-enforcement struck during the Obama years are now essentially frozen, and de Cossio didn’t meet with any White House officials during his visit to Washington. He did, however, hold talks with business groups and members of Congress including Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

“We will continue to engage as much as possible with U.S. business,” the diplomat said. “We will not take the bait of this hostility in the political relationship.” About 80 U.S. companies are currently doing business in Cuba, he said, and so far none of them have decided to pull out.

Havana sees Trump’s decision to tighten sanctions as a play for Republican votes in Florida, and argues it won’t succeed in dislodging the communist government. Though he’s confident U.S.-Cuba relations can survive Trump, de Cossio is worried that any potential successor will have a hard time undoing the legal knot now that courts are hearing suits. “What Helms-Burton does is it makes sure that the hands of that president are tied,” he said.

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