Representatives meeting at the XIII Meeting of the Political Council of ALBA. Photo Credit: Nina Zambrano Díaz. Foreign Ministry of Ecuador.
On September 26, the United States imposed sanctions on Raúl Castro, brother of the late Fidel Castro and head of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), over Cuba’s support for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. The sanctions prohibit Castro and his family members from entering the United States but otherwise remain largely symbolic in function with little practical effect. Such sanctions align closely with the Trump administration’s hardline policy toward Cuba and act as an extension of the maximum-pressure campaign against Maduro. This dual-focus on Cuba and Venezuela reflects the administration’s belief that Maduro’s resilience against US sanctions is largely owed to Havana’s economic and security assistance to Caracas.
Cuba’s firm commitment to Venezuela in the face of US pressure highlights a strong partnership between both states stretching back across two decades. Both countries’ shared revolutionary ideology and animosity toward the United States have set the foundation for their relationship, which is expected to continue unabated despite changing economic and political circumstances in both states. While Cuba’s support for Venezuela has contributed to the persistence of the Maduro regime, continued US pressure may harden the two countries’ resolve and lead to a deepening of their relationship. The United States must understand both the historical roots and the current trajectories of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship in order to inform its own decision-making and develop an effective approach to the current crisis.
The origins of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship can be traced back to two events of the 1990s: the “Special Period” in Cuba and the election of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Havana lost its primary economic and security benefactor and experienced widespread food and fuel shortages. This crisis prompted the “Special Period in Peacetime,” which lasted throughout the decade and led to a state rationing system to distribute scarce resources to the population. In addition, the government authorized limited free enterprise through small-scale agrarian markets to facilitate the distribution of food during this time. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 also exacerbated Cuba’s economic problems by tightening the preexisting US embargo against Havana and prohibiting foreign companies from conducting business with the country.
The election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela near the end of the decade, however, changed the situation for Cuba. Chávez and Fidel Castro shared similar ideological and economic positions with regards to their respective brands of revolutionary leftism and their disdain for the United States. Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” restructured Venezuelan society around a populist framework that espoused mass mobilization, rejected the previous elites’ political and economic institutions, and militarized the country against foreign and domestic opponents. Cuba’s predilection for Chávez’s populist surge led to a series of cooperative agreements that ended the turmoil of the Special Period and enabled Venezuela to fill the vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union.
The Cuban-Venezuelan relationship has revolved around a series of economic and security agreements that provide a strong underpinning for bilateral ties. In October 2000, both countries signed their first economic cooperation agreement, which saw Venezuela provide an initial volume of 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, This volume eventually increased to 90,000 b/d. In exchange, Cuba provided over 30,000 doctors and technical specialists to Venezuela to administer medical treatment and other key services. In addition, Havana authorized the relocation of Venezuelan patients to medical facilities in Cuba to receive additional treatment for special cases. This agreement has established the primary basis for much of the two countries’ economic engagement to the present-day. The agreement also fills critical gaps that neither state could fill on its own. The provision of subsidized oil to Cuba pulled the country from the stagnation of the Special Period and revitalized the country’s economy. The services provided by Cuban medical specialists in Venezuela bolster Caracas’s ability to increase its medical coverage for its citizens.
Another key element of the Bolivarian alliance, however, is the security dimension. A failed coup in 2002 against Chávez and growing political opposition to the regime forced the Venezuelan leader to turn to Cuba as a security provider. Castro’s decades-long experience with the suppression of domestic dissent provided a model for Venezuela to emulate. From the earliest days of the Chavista regime, Cuba has provided intelligence personnel to bolster the Venezuelan government’s security apparatus. Over the past two decades, Cuban intelligence officers have filled key roles in the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP), Venezuela’s primary intelligence and counterintelligence agency. In addition, these officers also assumed security roles in the Department of Military Intelligence, The Central Bank, the Interior Ministry, and other critical organizations within Venezuela.
While these appointments have handled Venezuela’s domestic political opposition, Cuba also assisted Chávez with suppression of dissent within the military. In May 2008, both countries signed a security agreement that permitted Cuban intelligence personnel to establish the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) for Venezuela. DGCIM regularly monitors the allegiance of Venezuelan military officers and detains suspected opponents, which has blunted the potential of the military as a source of opposition to the Chavista regime. In addition, the agreement permitted the Cubans to directly coordinate the training of Venezuelan intelligence officers and soldiers. The outsourcing of Venezuela’s security functions to Cuba reflects Caracas’s complete trust and dependence on Havana’s expertise in this field.
The foundational roots of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship established under Chávez and Castro have provided Maduro with access to a legacy of resources necessary to sustain the Bolivarian regime. However, the US-led sanctions campaign against both Cuba and Venezuela threatens to undermine the integrity of the relationship and the mutual benefits it provides. In addition, economic changes in both countries raise questions over the ideology that has provided much of the basis for the relationship.
US sanctions on Venezuelan oil have reduced Cuba’s access to this much-needed import to around 40,000 b/d, which marks a drastic dimunition from the height of the Cuba-Venezuela oil trade when the volume stood at 90,000 b/d.  The Trump administration’s hope is that this economic pressure would compel Havana to end its security support to the Maduro regime. At the same time, Venezuela’s inability to export its oil to its major partners also deprives the regime of revenue, forcing Maduro to share in the pain of his Caribbean ally.
On a broader ideological and economic level, two major changes have occurred that have challenged the economically leftist ideology that sets the basis for the Bolivarian alliance. In February 2019, Cuba ratified a new constitution that, while affirming the dominance of the PCC in national affairs, simultaneously authorized foreign investment, free enterprise, and private property. In September 2019, the Maduro regime implemented austerity measures, reduced printing of the country’s currency, and removed price controls, which mark a departure from the socialist economic policies favored by the Chavista government. These two measures contradict the leftist economic policies and ideology that have characterized these two countries’ approach to governance and the basis for the relationship. With these stunning measures, more scrutiny is placed on the original purpose and ideological foundation of the Bolivarian alliance, raising questions over the future direction of the relationship and the possibility of long-term structural reform.
While the Bolivarian Alliance may currently face pressure, the reality is that the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, due its deep historical roots, is unlikely to unravel and will continue to impede the dissolution of the Maduro regime. The longevity of the partnership is based around a “diplomatic reciprocity” that has witnessed each state come to the other’s aid in moments of deep crisis. Venezuela’s economic aid to Cuba during the tail-end of the Special Period represented an act of solidarity that Havana greatly appreciated at a time when the PCC felt vulnerable to internal and external pressures. Cuba’s enhancement of Venezuela’s internal security provided reinforcement to both Chávez and Maduro in moments when the legitimacy of the Bolivarian regime was challenged.
While the ideological foundations of the partnership are now under strain, the current political and economic crisis under Maduro represents another test of solidarity for the alliance. The long list of economic and security benefits cumulatively gained over the past twenty years within the partnership motivate its continuation. On one level, both countries can point to the joint triumphs achieved together within the framework of the Bolivarian alliance, which suggests that both countries will see the current standoff with the United States as another opportunity to weather political storms together. On another level, the shared hostility towards Washington will further ground the relationship in a way that a shared revolutionary ideology never could.
The United States should continue to monitor the two countries’ relationship closely as it works to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. While the Trump administration may not repeal the current sanctions regime on both countries anytime soon, it should approach the crisis with the realistic understanding that the Bolivarian alliance will not crumble easily.
On one level, US policymakers should take into account the double-edged effect of the sanctions regime on both countries. While sanctions deprive the Bolivarian allies of access to key resources and revenue, they simultaneously push the leaders of these states to mobilize the population against the United States. In essence, these countries harness a diversionary foreign policy that increases public support for the regimes in power and unites the state behind the leader. The leaders of Cuba and Venezuela do not want either their constituents or foreign observers to perceive them as submissive to an “external aggressor” and will heavily rely on this diversionary foreign policy to put up a show of strength. As a result, US policymakers should carefully evaluate the effects of additional sanctions in their approach to both countries.
On another level, while the
Cuba-Venezuela alliance represents a key challenge to the resolution of the
crisis, Washington should not place unique emphasis on the partnership’s
dissolution as a be-all, end-all solution. The United States should continue to
focus on a holistic, multilateral approach to the crisis that accounts for all
possible policy solutions and factors and incorporates other partners.
 Matt Spetalnick, “U.S. Issues Travel Ban for Cuba’s Castro over Human Rights Accusations, Support for Venezuela’s Maduro,” Reuters, September 26, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cuba-castro/us-sanctions-cubas-castro-for-supporting-venezuelas-maduro-human-rights-violations-idUSKBN1WB2B5
 Rebecca Maria Torres, Velvet Nelson, Janet Henshall Momsen, and Debbie A. Niemeier, “Experiment or Transition? Revisiting Food Distribution in Cuban Agromercados from the ‘Special Period,’” Journal of Latin American Geography 9 (2010): 68.
 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996, Public Law 104-114, U.S. Statutes at Large 110 (1996): 791-795.
 Hernán Yánez, “The Cuba-Venezuela Alliance: “Emancipatory
Neo-Bolivarismo” Or Totalitarian Expansion?” Institute for Cuban &
Cuban-American Studies Occasional Papers, 2 (2005).
 Ibid., 7-8.
 Max Azicri, “The Castro-Chávez Alliance,” Latin American Perspectives 36 (2009): 100-101.
 Kevin Ginter, “Truth and Mirage: The Cuba-Venezuela Security and Intelligence Alliance,” The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 26 (2013): 229.
 Alfonso Chardy, “Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has Posted Cuban Advisors to Key Government Ministries, Increasing the Concern of the U.S.,” The Miami Herald, May 8, 2004, quoted in Ginter, “Truth and Mirage,” 230.
 Angus Berwick, “Special Report: How Cuba Taught Venezuela to Quash Military Dissent,” Reuters, August 22, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-cuba-military-specialreport/special-report-how-cuba-taught-venezuela-to-quash-military-dissent-idUSKCN1VC1BX.
 “Cuba Deepens Oil Austerity to Counter US Sanctions,” Argus Media, September 12, 2019, https://www.argusmedia.com/en/news/1976203-cuba-deepens-oil-austerity-to-counter-us-sanctions.
 Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta, “Cubans Overwhelmingly Ratify New Socialist Constitution,” Reuters, February 25, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-constitution-referendum/cubans-overwhelmingly-ratify-new-socialist-constitution-idUSKCN1QE22Y.
 Kejal Vyas, “Venezuela Quietly Loosens Grip on Market, Tempering Economic Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuela-quietly-loosens-grip-on-market-tempering-economic-crisis-11568718002.
 Kilic B. Kanat, “Diversionary Foreign Policy in Authoritarian States: The Use of Multiple Diversionary Strategies by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War,” Journal of Strategic Security 7 (Spring 2014): 20.