Cuba, Venezuela, and the limits of the doctrine of ‘smart power’

HAVANA – Given the failure of the policy against Cuba, Barack Obama decided to try other methods and trust that the ‘seduction of the American way of life’ would lead to the collapse of the Cuban socialist regime.

It was a time when diplomacy reigned over confrontation. The economic blockade and other measures aimed at exacerbating tensions between both parties did not function with this policy.

With Venezuela he acted differently. Giving continuity to the aggressive policy of George W. Bush administration, he went to the extreme measure of calling for a state of national emergency due to the ‘unusual and extraordinary threat’ that Venezuela supposedly represented for the national security of the United States.

Although both policies had the common purpose of overthrowing the governments of these countries — or at the very least encouraging divisions among them — the so-called ‘doctrine of smart power,’ a theoretical guide to their actions in the international arena, imposed a different treatment.

First, the concrete reality of each country mattered. Let’s say that it was not the same facing a consolidated government like Cuba’s, which for decades had demonstrated its capacity to resist American attacks, than to act against the young Venezuelan revolutionary process, among other things, weakened by the early demise of its leader, Hugo Chávez.

More importantly, the possibility of articulating consensus in each case was different. A worn out traditional process of counterrevolution, to some extent attenuated due to exhaustion, conflicted with U.S. economic interests that were affected by the Cuban Revolution. Obama’s Cuba policy received majority support from many political circles and the whole of American society, including important economic sectors, interested in regaining access to the Cuban market.

However, the Venezuelan Revolution collided with the huge transnational corporations already established in the country — particularly the large oil monopolies. One factor that explains the support of most European and Latin American countries to U.S. policy against Venezuela are the lobby groups working on behalf of these oil companies deployed throughout the world.

The surprising appointment by Donald Trump of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State can then be explained, at least in part, to Exxon’s interest in resolving two issues of its highest priority: unlocking investments in Russia blocked by the Congress, and recovering what was lost in Venezuela.

Cuba was another story. Obama was right to realize that the U.S. was isolated due to its policy towards the Island and that a consensus as was articulated against Venezuela was impossible. This was demonstrated by the votes on the subject at the UN General Assembly and the progress made in Cuba’s relations with the European Union. In the case of Latin America, except later with Bolsonaro’s Brazil, not even right-wing governments have been willing to decisively join Trump’s policy against Cuba.

The cost-benefit ratio works in this case. For decades Cuba has been the subject of an intense propaganda campaign against it, at one time so powerful that all Latin American countries, except Mexico, ended up breaking relations with the Island. However, this situation has been reversed. The levels of solidarity that exist today make it difficult to return to the past.

In contrast, campaigns against Venezuela are in full swing. Even leftist sectors do not know where to place themselves and those who decide to defend it risk being delegitimized. Under these conditions it is convenient to attack Venezuela, because as a result an opinion matrix is generated that serves to create disunity and weaken domestic progressive movements.

Despite these considerations, Donald Trump abandoned the presupposed ideas of the doctrine of smart power. He therefore put the two countries in the same bag which helped weaken the credibility of his stance in both cases. Only domestic policy factors can explain this behavior. One being the influence of the Cuban-American extreme right, which Trump feels he needs in order to win the state of Florida in the 2020 presidential election.

Mixing both cases, no matter how implausible the arguments may seem, the Cuban-American right automatically channels towards Cuba part of the propaganda campaigns and, above all, the funds allocated against Venezuela.

It also makes it, at least for the moment, the quintessential access channel to American circles of power for the Venezuelan counterrevolution, as well as its representative in South Florida. Since, although Venezuelan immigrants who are enemies of Chavismo generally enjoy good economic standing, have not been favored by U.S. immigration policy. 

The benefits are not small. On the one hand, it contributes money to political campaigns that benefit Cuban-American politicians. It also places them in an advantageous position to gain access to important government positions, linked to the United States policy towards Latin America, as has the case.

Another factor that explains the generalization of Trump’s policy is that by attacking Cuba, Venezuela, and everything that smells of progressivism, helps serve the crusade against ‘socialism,’ a campaign encouraged by Republican conservatives to frighten voters when it comes to Democratic Party candidates.

In any case, the only certainty is that despite the deployment of forces carried out, neither Obama’s ‘smart power’ nor Trump’s ‘counterintelligence’ have achieved the purpose of altering Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela and, much less, defeating their respective revolutionary processes. This puts in question the real capacity of the United States to do so, at least as long as both governments retain the strength of their internal political bases, since they have virtually exhausted almost all of their options.

Another conclusion that we can draw from this experience is that, ultimately, they are often domestic motives, sometimes ambitions as selfish as winning an election, or benefiting a particular business, which determine the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Which leads one to ask: Is it really in the ‘national interest,’ as imperialistic as it may be, that guides the United States policy towards the world and itself?