The parallels between the Cuban shift to communism in the 1950’s and Venezuela’s 20-year decent into socialist anarchy are at the same time striking and alarming – especially for Florida. Like Cuba in the 1950’s as it descended into communist rule at the hands of Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, Venezuela is now flirting with economic disaster thanks in large part to the late Hugo Chavez and that nation’s current socialist dictator, Nicolas Maduro.
Just as refugees streamed out of Castro’s Cuba and formed the vibrant Cuban exile community in Miami, Venezuelans refugees are fleeing their country in droves. Some four to six million people have emigrated, with the United States as the top destination, South Florida specifically:
Between the years 2000 and 2012, the number of legal Venezuelan residents in Florida increased from 91,500 to 259,000.
Another parallel: during the Cuban crisis of the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviet Union backstopped Castro with weapons and even nuclear missiles, culminating in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and ultimately, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, the Russians seem to be following the same blueprint, once again arming a flailing, western-hemisphere nation to the teeth. Vladimir Putin ordered a pair of TU-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela in December 2018. The bombers are an overt signal to the United States that Russia can project a powerful threat as devastating as any U.S. Navy carrier group: the TU-160 can carry Kh-102 thermonuclear cruise missiles in a rotary launching bay, with more than enough range to reach major targets inside the United States.
But two strategic, nuclear-capable bombers don’t give Maduro any real help in quelling the masses of enraged, starving citizens. And Russia is as interested in keeping Maduro in power as the U.S. is interested in seeing him go. To that end, Putin ordered the deployment of the S-300 surface to air missile system, which defense experts believe is meant to deter any thoughts of U.S. military intervention in the region. The S-300 deployment also gave Putin cover to order a contingent of Russian “experts” to Venezuela. Many of those experts, some of whom have since been withdrawn, are actually paramilitary contractors or intelligence operatives. And while their mission remains unclear, experts speculate they were in country to protect Maduro, and to protect Russian property in the event of another coup attempt.
Perhaps most ironic is the fact that those Russian security personnel were augmented by thousands of Cuban intelligence personnel and soldiers.
And just as the United States imposed strict sanctions on Cuba over the years, President Donald Trump, urged on by the two Republican U.S. Senators from Florida, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, the U.S. has imposed strict economic sanctions against the Maduro regime in Venezuela. The sanctions have had a crippling effect, and Russia has been forced to pump in billions of dollars in aid to keep Maduro in power. Despite the sanctions, the Russians are using cryptocurrency and legal loopholes to trade cash for future promises of oil exports. To date, Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, is owed about $1.1 billion in raw oil shipments.
That fact alone may explain the rapid Russian military buildup in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. They are undoubtedly licking their chops at the prospect that the U.S. might try to tighten the noose around Maduro even more by forcing U.S. companies to abandon the substantial oil infrastructure that has been owned and operated by American energy companies there for the past 100 years. As one geopolitical think-tank put it:
The US decision to temporarily extend General License 8, which allows US companies a temporary stay of presence in Venezuela, may not be extended again in October. If not, US companies’ withdrawal from Venezuela would be a boon to Russian and Chinese energy companies. Both could acquire turnkey operations on US invested production facilities.
If that happens, the political fallout in Florida would be substantial. Blocking Venezuelan oil exports by U.S. companies, while it may seem the fastest way to choke off Maduro’s cash flow, ignores the fact that the Russians and Chinese would benefit as much as Maduro. Without question, they would prop him up as long as necessary to extract the oil resources and the cash they are owed.
Abandoning American energy interests in Venezuela not only the wrong move geopolitically, but also electorally for Trump, who needs Florida if he hopes to retain the White House in 2020. Whatever short term praise he might receive by those pushing to end the exemption for U.S. energy interests in Venezuela would be negated in short order by the simple fact that Maduro would remain in power for that very reason, relying on Russian support funded by oil supplied with American investment and using American infrastructure.
Now, with the recent drone attack on Saudi oil fields, U.S. gas prices have spiked nearly 10 cents in less than a week, with experts predicting prices will climb another dime or more before the end of the month. Losing Venezuelan oil exports would only send prices higher still. That wouldn’t bode well for the U.S. economy heading into the 2020 election cycle.
And neither would an ever-increasing influx of Venezuelan refugees streaming into Florida, who would stand as a testament to voters across the country that we got outplayed by Russia. History records that the United States pulled out of Cuba in 1958, leading to the collapse of the Batista regime, the rise of Castro, the installment of Russian nuclear weapons and communism, all parked 90 miles south of Miami.
That’s precisely why Trump must avoid making the same mistake in Venezuela.