Our Venezuela Strategy Is Failing. What We Need Is a Cuba Strategy. | Opinion

Recently, stories of a Bay of Pigs 2.0 scenario emerged from Venezuela—but this time, the botched attempt to overthrow a Latin American regime did not directly involve the U.S. government. Rather, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and his advisors appear to have entered into an exploratory arrangement with the alleged coup plotters, Silvercorp. This embarrassing, unforced error will likely have wide-ranging consequences not only for Guaido and his already shaky governing coalition, but also for the United States' ability to break the diplomatic stalemate by relying on its current strategy. The situation is further complicated by malign foreign interests at play in Venezuela—principally, those of Cuba.

Have no doubt: Maduro's masterful public relations campaign, including the airing of video confessions on live television, are all taken out of Cuba's Cold War playbook. Although it's unclear whether Cuba engineered this entire operation from its inception or simply learned of it through its network of informants, it successfully embarrassed Guaido and the United States and sent a clear message that the Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence services have eyes and ears everywhere. Maduro and, by extension, his Cuban backers, are now in a stronger position—both to detain opposition members for a coup attempt (a line he has not yet crossed) and to further undermine Guaido and his party. This positioning will likely pay dividends for the regime in the weeks and months to come.

By reminding us just how unsuccessful we have been to promote a return to democracy in Venezuela, the Bay of Pigs 2.0 debacle should force the U.S. to pivot to an entirely new approach. Understandably, the United States' efforts to dislodge Maduro have focused almost exclusively on dialoguing with the opposition and Maduro's cronies.

But maybe the United States has been negotiating with the wrong dictatorship all along. Perhaps it's time to explore the possibility that Venezuela's future will not be decided in Caracas, but rather in Havana.

Having failed to liberalize and diversify its economy, Cuba finds itself, yet again, facing financial ruin. Cuban leaders have relied on Venezuela's largesse for decades, to include previously reselling donated Venezuelan crude to generate revenue. But coronavirus has sent oil prices to near all-time lows and eradicated Cuba's nascent tourism industry. While industrialized countries are positioned to bounce back after the crisis, Cuba may not be so lucky—and its leaders know it. At the end of the day, the Cuban regime is keen to ensure its survival and to include continued receipt of Venezuelan oil and other support from Caracas. The question then remains: Could Cuba be enticed into negotiating a peaceful transition in Venezuela in exchange for formal security and economic guarantees from the United States?

Coercive diplomacy can be risky business, as evidenced by the Trump administration's efforts in China, North Korea and Afghanistan, among others. That said, it falls well short of military intervention and further reinforces our desire to seek a bold, negotiated solution to an intractable problem that has vexed both prior administrations and the mainstream foreign policy community.

Mural of Simon Bolivar in Caracas
Mural of Simon Bolivar in Caracas FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images

The negotiations and potential deliverables could take any number of forms, but the consequences of rejecting America's offer could be made abundantly clear—namely, a significant increase in pressure on Cuba as it attempts to navigate a post-coronavirus reality. Such moves could include intercepting oil shipments bound for Cuba, ramping up sanctions on Cuban entities, a coordinated on-island messaging campaign to exploit the Cuban government's decision to place Venezuela's interests above those of its own people and other aggressive actions that could create headaches for Cuba's leaders at the very moment they need to consolidate control in Caracas.

Entering into a potential pact with Cuba is almost certain to be controversial—it's unorthodox and politically fraught. It's also the last thing either Havana or Caracas would expect, which may be just the tactic to budge the needle and bring about long-term change in Venezuela. If nothing else, it may also be possible to use the very idea of negotiations to sow doubt and drive a wedge, however small, between Venezuela and Cuba.

By now, it should be clear that sticking to the same old script is not a recipe for success. Negotiating with Cuba may seem like something out of the Cold War, but perhaps going back to the future is just what we have needed to do all along.

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. He served at the U.S. embassy in Caracas between 2011 and 2013.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.