WASHINGTON — In the United States, Cuban American politicians are some of the most vocal critics of the Venezuelan government for what they say has been its violent repression of ongoing anti-government demonstrations across the country. While these staunch anti-communist lawmakers have led efforts to punish the Venezuelan leadership with sanctions, some say their goal may may be to destabilize Cuba.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida are Cuban Americans who have led efforts in Congress to impose sanctions on Venezuela.
The limited sanctions that include banning visas and freezing the U.S. assets of Venezuela's leaders will send a message -- they say -- condemning the use of force against anti-government protesters there.
Their motivation is in part strategic, though, according to William LeoGrande, Professor of Latin American politics at American University. The goal, he said, is to break up Venezuela’s close alliance with Cuba and end the flow of cheap oil the Venezuelan government provides to Castro’s communist regime.
“If the current government of Venezuela were to be overthrown, a conservative government would probably cut that assistance to Cuba and thereby destabilize the situation in Cuba. That, I think, is what conservative Cuban Americans are after,” said LeoGrande.
There is public anger in Venezuela about basic food and supply shortages, rampant inflation and the high crime rate, fueling sometimes violent demonstrations in this oil-rich country.
Venezuela’s leaders blame the United States for inciting and supporting the demonstrations. The U.S. has denied any such involvement.
Cuban American leaders like Rubio blame Cuba for orchestrating Venezuela’s use of force against the protesters.
“… the government of Venezuela, which are puppets of Havana, completely infiltrated by Cubans and agents from Havana. Not agents, openly, foreign military affairs officials involved in Venezuela,” said Rubio.
Carl Meacham, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this assertion mischaracterizes the longstanding socialist alliance that began during the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez.
“So I think that even though that relationship is clear and that partnership is beneficial to both countries, I think the Venezuelans are in the driver’s seat of the developments we are seeing,” said Meacham.
While the Cuba connection may be a motivating factor for some, these analysts say broad support for sanctions in the U.S. Congress is driven by a desire to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Venezuela and to avert any potential for instability in the region.