Crude Revolutionaries

Why some see further unrest in Venezuela as a threat to the Castros in Cuba.

Top U.S. lawmakers from both parties are urging the Obama administration to take a tougher line on Venezuela, which is violently cracking down on popular protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro. For some on Capitol Hill, though, the real target is Cuba.

These leading Republicans and Democrats are pushing back at a country that has been a constant thorn in the side of U.S. interests in Latin America in recent years.

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) have both called for the Organization of American States, which meets Thursday, to take a tougher line on the Maduro government's treatment of peaceful protesters. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has floated the idea of U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in the crackdown, and even against the Venezuelan government itself.

But Venezuela hawks such as Rubio are making a second argument: tougher action against Venezuela represents a chance to undermine one of the key lifelines of the communist regime in Cuba, whose economy relies on heavily subsidized oil and other gifts from Caracas.

"The Cubans get free and cheap oil from the Venezuelans. So their interest is keeping this regime in place because they're their benefactors," Rubio told CNN on Tuesday, Feb. 25. "And Cuba is clearly involved in assisting the Venezuelan government with both personnel and training and equipment to carry out these repressive activities," he added.

A host of key lawmakers have long been skeptical of the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Cuba after more than 50 years of a U.S. economic embargo against the island nation. Obama's efforts to loosen restrictions on travel and remittances, especially for Cuban Americans, have provoked a backlash among lawmakers, like Rubio, that count on Cuban-American votes.

That perception was strengthened in December, when President Barack Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro, the brother of Fidel and the current Cuban president, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. That came just a month after Obama suggested the United States might need to rethink the embargo.

Rubio said in a passionate speech on the Senate floor Monday that he also wants normal relations with Cuba -- "a democratic and free Cuba. But you want us to reach out and develop friendly relationships with a serial violator of human rights, who supports what's going on in Venezuela and every other atrocity on the planet?"

Cuba and Venezuela are linked as foreign policy challenges for many lawmakers because of the close ties between the two socialist regimes. Former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez was an unabashed supporter of Fidel Castro, and helped ensure that Venezuela used its oil wealth to help prop up Cuba's ailing economy. Chávez repeatedly sought medical treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him in Cuba, and the close relationship between the two countries has continued even as both have moved on to other leaders. Nicolás Maduro was one of the feted guests last summer when Cuba celebrated the 60th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution.

While Venezuela's self-proclaimed "Bolivarian revolution" was modeled on Cuba's, the South American oil giant replaced the Soviet Union as the island country's main economic patron, underwriting the Cuban economy to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

Some estimates of the scale of Venezuelan support for Cuba, including more than 130,000 barrels a day of oil but also salaries for thousands of Cuban officials working in the country, suggest Caracas gives Cuba more than $10 billion a year, or between one-fifth and one-sixth of Cuba's gross domestic product. That comes close to the level of economic support that Cuba received from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, before the Soviet collapse abruptly ended Moscow's economic aid to Fidel Castro.

In other words, some lawmakers believe, further unrest or even a change in the regime in Venezuela could represent a direct threat to the continued rule of Raúl and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

However, a lot has changed since the end of the Cold War. Cuba has slowly tried to reform its economy and find more than one "sugar daddy" to prop it up. Brazil, for one, is increasing investment and trade in Cuba, and just helped construct a major port not far from Havana. Cuba, recognizing the peril that reliance on Venezuelan oil poses for its economy, has also repeatedly sought to tap what it believes are abundant oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, but so far without success.

"Do you drive Cuba off the edge of the earth by strangling Venezuela? Nothing the United States has done in 50 years has caused that to happen in Cuba," Julia Sweig, a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy. "My expectation is that Cuba has been planning for this for a long time, and even if they're not 100 percent ready, they are prepared enough," including deeper economic ties with Brazil, the European Union, Canada, and China, she said.

Oil is at the heart of Venezuela's support for Cuba, but it is also at the heart of Venezuela's own woes. Much of the popular anger in Venezuela is a reaction to the government crackdown on students. However, widespread dissatisfaction with the Maduro government's economic mismanagement has prompted even the middle class -- hammered by soaring inflation, empty store shelves, and a cratering currency -- to join the protests. The New York Times captured the mood this week talking with one such protester: "Look. I've got a rock in my hand and I'm the distributor for Adidas eyewear in Venezuela," Carlos Alviarez told the newspaper.

And that economic malaise is due in part to the systemic mismanagement of Venezuela's oil wealth over the past 15 years. Blessed with the largest oil reserves in Latin America, and the second largest in the world, Venezuela has struggled to attract the foreign investment needed to increase oil production, especially in challenging oil fields laden with thick, heavy oil.

Production has remained constant, at about 2.3 million barrels per day in recent years, in part because rampant inflation has made it hard for foreign firms to boost output there and partly because the Chávez and Maduro regimes have used oil income to underwrite expensive social programs at home, to the detriment of productive investment in the industry.

Exports, which account for about half the Venezuelan budget, have plummeted since the advent of Chavismo. Venezuelan oil exports peaked in the late 1990s at about 3 million barrels, but have since fallen to about 1.7 million barrels a day. Additionally, some 400,000 barrels of that export total are sent to Caribbean nations under preferential terms, further eroding Caracas' potential earnings.

While Rubio and others rail at the State Department for not taking a tougher stance on Venezuela, another office in Foggy Bottom did take one important step on Wednesday, Feb. 26 that could ultimately deal a big economic blow to Maduro and the Venezuelan government. The State Department's Inspector General determined that its environmental review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline suffered no conflict of interest.

That removes one of the last potential obstacles for the Obama administration to finally greenlight the pipeline that would carry almost 800,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil from Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The biggest loser if Keystone is built? Venezuela, which currently exports about 800,000 barrels of heavy oil a day to the United States to keep those refineries humming.

John Hudson contributed to this article

AFP - Getty


After the Revolution

Ukraine's new leaders took down a president. Can they rebuild their country?

As Ukrainian leaders trade the barricades for bureaucracy, they're faced with nearly empty government coffers, painful economic reforms, and the looming threat that their success will provoke retaliation from Russia, whether economic or otherwise.

After a bloody week that brought the country to the brink of civil war, opposition leaders succeeded in ousting former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kiev as his government dissolved. Their prize? Dealing with the same economic crisis that helped drive their predecessor from office.

The new Ukrainian government has indicated that it will need roughly $35 billion to get through the next two years, much more than the original $15 billion bailout the government negotiated with Russia last fall.

In addition to putting a price tag on fixing its economy, the Ukrainian government on Monday moved to shore up the country's financial future by picking a new central banker. Parliament voted for Stepan Kubiv, who is a former "commandant" from the protest movement, according to the Kyiv Post. Kubiv said one of the first things on his agenda would be inviting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Kiev to restart negotiations over a bailout package.

Over the past few days, Western countries have again welcomed Ukraine to the European fold and now stand ready to offer financial assistance once a new government is in place. In addition to making clear that Ukraine had a path back to financial solvency through the IMF, the United States proffered bilateral aid as well. European officials are also reaching out to Japan, China, and Turkey to organize a Ukrainian bailout, according to Reuters. But the money won't come easy. The IMF has previously outlined its demands, including cutting energy subsidies, slashing government spending, and reining in corruption.

Those conditions are not expected to change -- and will likely be unpopular among Ukrainians -- but some analysts are optimistic that there is a way to fix the economic problems that have plagued the country for over two decades.

"This is a really opportune time to do things that are long overdue, and can be easily blamed on the outgoing administration," Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank Group, said in an email.

The new leaders were part of the opposition that revolted against Yanukovych's decision to accept Russia's cash and reject closer trade ties with Europe. Now, they are free to put the country back on a European trajectory and reconsider signing the trade and political agreement that Yanukovych rejected, but they may face the same fallout from Russia that he did. Ukraine relies on Russia, not just for trade, but also for natural gas imports.

If Ukraine's short-term financial lifeline comes with the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, which will allow for a free trade zone and lift visa restrictions, it will carry one big additional risk: the threat that an angry Russia could use its energy leverage to try to cow Kiev back into its orbit.

"If the Russians choose to make life difficult for Kiev, they have lots of tools. They could raise the price of gas back to pre-December levels, they could boycott Ukrainian goods, they could even go so far as to shut off shipments of natural gas," said Steve Pifer, a Ukraine expert at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

While U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders have tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that a stable Ukraine is more in Russia's interest than a failing state would be, the Russian leader's geopolitical calculations are likely to be different -- leading him to work against any sort of stabilization of Ukraine.

"Putin is going to be tempted to use some of the pressure levers at his disposal to make life difficult for the new leaders. I suspect Russia will be part of the problem, not part of the solution," Pifer said.

Russia holds sway over much of the Ukrainian economy, but Moscow's dominance of natural gas supplies looms largest. Russia has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine several times in the past, and gas trade between the two countries has been at the heart of the tug of war for influence since late last year.

Granted, Russia's energy leverage over Ukraine and the rest of Europe isn't unlimited. Wintertime low temperatures, which spur greater gas demand, will soon give way to spring. Europe is awash in natural gas, which offers insulation against any sudden supply disruptions. In the longer term, Ukraine, Poland, the U.K., and others are trying to kick-start the production of shale gas, which has largely turned the United States from an energy weakling into an energy powerhouse. Future exports of natural gas from the United States could also help Europe shake off Russia's dominance as well.

For now, though, the big questions facing Kiev are threefold. What happens to the preferential deal that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed with Russia in December that included $15 billion in aid and a 33 percent discount on natural gas? How painful will the domestic economic and energy reforms needed to satisfy the IMF and the European Union really be? Finally, what will the turmoil do to Ukraine's long-term plans to become a bigger gas producer in its own right and shake off the Russian energy yoke once and for all?

Russia does hold some powerful cards in the short term. Under the terms of the December deal, the price discount will have to be renewed by mutual agreement every quarter. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned at the time of the deal that deep discounts can give energy suppliers big leverage, too.

Ukraine's acting energy minister said Monday that he hoped the gas price would remain stable, Reuters reported. But Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's prime minister and a deputy CEO at Gazprom, laid down his own marker Monday when he said the gas discounts will run their term and will then have to be renegotiated with the new Ukrainian government, "if one appears."

Ukraine's broader trade relationship with Russia could also hang in the balance. Yanukovych decided to spurn the European Union last fall after Russia threatened punishing trade sanctions if he signed the deal.

Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev said Monday in Washington that his government would have to consider what a new Ukrainian pact with Europe would mean for Russia. He said it was still an open question whether Ukraine could be part of both the Russian and the European free trade zones.

"We decided the three parts -- Ukraine, European community, and us -- will start to talk about if it's really possible to have the two things together," Ulyukaev said. He also made clear that the rest of the $15 billion aid deal that it promised in the fall is not a sure thing. Ulyukaev said it would depend who Russia's "partners" were in Ukraine. A $2 billion bond deal that was supposed to be the latest installment of the aid package fell through last week, after Russia indicated it was backing off because of political instability.

Another big question is how Ukraine balances the need to reform its economy, especially parts of its domestic energy sector, in order to satisfy Europe and the IMF. Under the terms of the association agreement that both sides initialed last November -- but which Yanukovych suddenly ditched, sparking the whole protest movement in the first place -- Ukraine must set market prices for natural gas users in the domestic market, rather than offering discounts that act as a hidden subsidy. Additionally, Kiev has to ensure any energy it exports is priced at the same level as it charges at home.

All that adds up to a political headache for the new crop of policymakers in Ukraine: Any move to raise domestic prices could eventually shore up state finances, which is why the IMF has pushed for such reforms, but could also spark a popular backlash.

Finally, the months of protest, the formation of an interim government, and the prospect of another round of contentious elections raise the question of what will happen to Ukraine's long-term prospects for domestic energy development. Last year, Ukraine signed huge deals with Chevron and Shell to develop shale gas resources and to try to replicate, if on a smaller scale, the kind of energy revolution that has turned the United States from an importer of natural gas to a prospective exporter in just a few years.

Earlier in February, Ukrainian officials said they hoped to finalize the shale deal with Chevron in March. But the turmoil has made it unclear just when those foreign companies can actually start exploration. Chevron said late last week that it was "monitoring" the situation in Ukraine and still needed the Ukrainian parliament to pass additional energy legislation before it can start any exploration work on the $10 billion deal.

Though Ukraine's list of economic challenges is long, the country has managed to tick off its biggest economic obstacle.

"The big problem with the economy was that Yanukovych and his family only had one objective: to enrich themselves," said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Unfortunately, the Yanukovych family's corruption may have already cost the country about $12 billion, Aslund said.

Rob Stothard/Getty Images