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Cuba courted in diplomatic push on Venezuela crisis

Cuba courted in diplomatic push on Venezuela crisis
Colombian president flies to Havana to seek support for regional
John Paul Rathbone in Miami

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, was set to fly to Cuba on
Sunday on a mission to convince Havana to support a regional diplomatic
push to staunch Venezuela’s growing crisis, which has left 90 dead after
three months of protests.

The initiative, which Argentina and Mexico are understood to support, is
controversial but potentially effective as socialist Cuba is Venezuela’s
strongest ally and its intelligence services are understood to work as
close advisers to Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president.

“Santos is one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who knows the
three key players well,” said one person with an understanding of the
situation. “He knows Maduro and Venezuela, he knows Raúl Castro, and he
knows Donald Trump and the US state department.”

The diplomatic initiative comes at a critical time for Venezuela, as Mr
Maduro moves to rewrite the Opec country’s constitution to cement the
ruling Socialist party’s control by installing Soviet-style communes. An
early gauge of the regional diplomacy’s success will be if Mr Maduro
cancels the July 30 constitutional convention to create a legislative
superbody.

Venezuela’s opposition on Sunday mounted a symbolic referendum against
the convention, which polls show three-quarters of Venezuelans oppose.
The convention is widely seen as a point of no return for Venezuela.

Early indications suggested the referendum was passing peacefully.
Opposition activists posted photographs on social media of long lines of
people outside impromptu polling stations, not only in Venezuela but in
towns and cities worldwide, from Australia to Malaysia to Saudi Arabia
and Italy, where Venezuelans living abroad were invited to vote.

Julio Borges, the head of the National Assembly, or parliament, told a
news conference in Caracas on Sunday he hoped the exercise would serve
as “a great earthquake, that shakes the conscience of those in power”.

The government has played down the popular vote, which is non-binding.
It says the real election will come on July 30, although some analysts
have suggested there is still time for Mr Maduro to change his mind.

“To the extent that the [opposition referendum] prompts even
more?.?.?.?pushback?.?.?.[it] could prompt [Maduro] to back down,” Risa
Grais-Targow, analyst at Eurasia, the risk consultancy, wrote on Friday.
But “if Maduro does hold the vote on 30 July, it will represent a new
apex in the country’s ongoing political crisis. It will also test the
loyalty of the security apparatus, as the opposition will likely
mobilise significant protests across the country”.

Mr Santos has worked closely with Havana, Washington and Caracas over
the past six years as part of Colombia’s peace process between the
government and the Farc guerrilla group. But his Cuba visit, part of a
long-schedule commercial mission to Havana, is also a sign of mounting
international exasperation over Venezuela.

At the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg, Mauricio Macri, the Argentine
president, backed by Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, implored
other heads of state to “take note of the situation in Venezuela, where
they do not support human rights”.

The crisis in Venezuela has drained the country’s foreign reserves with
figures released on Friday showing the central bank’s coffers had
dropped below $10bn for the first time in 15 years.

The fall in reserves is likely to rekindle fears that Caracas might
default on its debt obligations this year. The state and its oil
company PDVSA are due to make capital and interest repayments of $3.7bn
in the fourth quarter.

Despite widespread concern over Venezeula’s plight, there has been
little concrete action from other countries besides the US and Brazil.
Washington has placed targeted financial sanctions on some Venezuelan
officials while Brazil suspended sales of tear gas to the Venezuelan
government.

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, last month said the US was
building a “robust list” of other individuals to sanction. A more
extreme US policy option that has also been discussed in Washington is
to ban sales of Venezuelan oil into the US market.

US refiners have lobbied the White House against including crude imports
in any broader potential sanctions package as Venezuela is the US’s
second-biggest foreign supplier to the gulf coast. A ban could also have
an impact on domestic fuel prices.

Cuba would make an unusual ally in an internationally-mediated attempt
to broker peace in Venezuela as it receives subsidised oil from Caracas
in return for medical services. Relations with Washington have also
cooled after Mr Trump partially rolled back the US rapprochement in
June, courting support from conservative Cuban-American legislators in
Washington.

But Havana could usefully offer safe haven exile for Mr Maduro’s senior
officials who, with a bolt hole to flee to, would no longer need to
fight to the last.

Additional reporting Gideon Long in Bogotá

Source: Cuba courted in diplomatic push on Venezuela crisis –
www.ft.com/content/0bcdff72-6a07-11e7-bfeb-33fe0c5b7eaa

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