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Cuba won’t negotiate on Venezuela, but Russia might, senior US official says

Elliott Abrams. U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela (U.S. Department of State/Flickr)

Moscow has maintained communication with members of the Venezuelan opposition even as the Cuban government plans on “going down with the ship” alongside Nicolás Maduro, a senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday.

In an interview with the Miami Herald and McClatchy, the special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said that Russia has kept the number of its military personnel in Venezuela stable, at around 120, to protect Maduro and is taking advantage of its oil reserves — all while “hedging” its bets by continuing quiet contact with members of the National Assembly and its president, Juan Guaidó.

“The Russian game is a very interesting game,” Abrams said. “They meet with Guaidó’s people. It is an interesting kind of hedging of their bets.”

The United States and more than 50 countries recognize Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Russia and Cuba support Maduro.

But Abrams said that representatives of the opposition and the Russian government have held several talks.

“And there will be more meetings,” he said. “We know that some more meetings are planned, that have been accepted by the Russians. They are trying to keep, I guess I’d say a door open to the opposition because they know they may come to power.”

Abrams is with the U.S. delegation in New York for the United Nations General Assembly sessions, where the Trump administration is rallying allies in Europe and Latin America to increase pressure on the Maduro regime through additional sanctions.

The Cuban government has not provided concrete signs it is interested in negotiating over Maduro’s fate, even though U.S. sanctions to prevent the transport of Venezuelan oil to the island have caused a shortage of fuel that threatens its economy.

“The Cubans, by my own view, they’re dead-enders and they’re going to go down with the ship,” Abrams said. “And it isn’t an irrational policy on their part, in the sense that no successor government is going to have the relationship with them that Maduro has.”

Thanks to an agreement signed in 2000 by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, Venezuela was sending 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island, a figure that has decreased due to plummeting production from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

Abrams said he has recently brought up the Venezuelan crisis with representatives from Canada and the European Union, which maintain contacts with Havana and have recently discussed the matter with the Cuban leadership. But no concrete offer of dialogue has come out of these meetings.

“I am struck by the fact that a lot of people talk to the Cubans all the time,” Abrams said, “and no one has yet suggested to us that there’s a deal to be had.”

Given Cuba’s fuel crisis, Abrams thought its government might be interested in talking.

“You might think the Cubans would say to the Canadians or the Spanish or somebody ‘make us an offer,” said the diplomat.

But he said the Cuban government has not suggested during its conversations with other governments that it is willing to explore alternative oil providers beyond Venezuela, which would be a potential indication, Abrams said, that they would be interested in negotiations.

“They have said nothing to anybody,” he said.

Relations between the United States and Cuba are at one of their worst moments due to the conflict over Venezuela.

On Tuesday, in his speech before the United Nations, President Donald Trump said that Maduro “is a Cuban puppet, protected by Cuban bodyguards, hiding from his own people, while Cuba benefits from Venezuela’s oil wealth to maintain its own communist rule.”

But a source familiar with ongoing talks between the Cuban government and representatives of Europe and Canada about Venezuela said that part of the problem is the Cubans’ distrust of the Trump administration.

According to the source, who asked not to be identified, representatives of the Cuban government have expressed doubts that, if they agree to negotiate, the U.S. might renege on its part of the agreement.

“What guarantees do you have that in the morning President Trump tweets that they are doing well and in the afternoon he changes his mind?” the source said.

Abrams said the U.S. team will not hold any meetings with Cuban representatives outside the General Assembly — but that Cuba did not have to wait for a negotiation with the United States to make internal changes and in relation to its policy on Venezuela.

“If the Cubans come forward and say, ‘Here’s the package, here are the domestic reforms, here are the international reforms,’ I think if you look at what President Trump has done with North Korea, and with the Taliban — you know that he’s open to breaking old patterns,” Abrams said. “But there has been zero evidence from Cuba.”


© 2019 Miami Herald