October 19, 2020
Why are Havana’s food markets so empty? For the Cuban people, the U.S. War on Venezuela stands out as a clear culprit contributing to these daily frustrations and hardships.
“Right now fewer trucks are coming in. Less merchandise too. And the quality isn’t the same because a lot of the products are rotting the fields because there’s no oil for the trucks. Because of the U.S. blockade on Cuba, no oil tankers can get here,” says Barbaro Medina, a produce vendor in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
This interview features among others in episode two of The War on Cuba, a documentary series released by Belly of the Beast, a media startup covering Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations.
“The U.S. oil blockade is explained in Part Two of The War on Cuba, premiering today ”
While mainstream coverage and even some Cubans blame the Cuban government for energy shortages, the U.S.’s role in creating the island’s energy crisis is rarely brought to light.
The Trump White House has ratcheted up claims of outsized Cuban influence in Venezuela ever since January 2019, when – with U.S. assistance – Juan Guaidó declared himself president of the oil-rich nation.
President Trump has called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a “Cuban puppet”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the Cuba “is the true imperialist power” in Venezuela, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton has asserted that “if the 25,000 Cubans left Venezuela,” Maduro would “fall by midnight.”
Yet these claims are baseless, according to former White House officials and security analysts.
“The only way you get to those numbers is to count doctors as security officials,” said Ben Rhodes, former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor who played a key role in negotiating the normalisation of U.S.-Cuba relations during President Obama’s second term.
Fulton Armstrong, a former National Security Council official with significant experience working on Cuba, agrees: “The Cubans who are in Venezuela are not armed and not militarily operational. The vast majority are doctors.”
But the rhetoric has played a key role in justifying the U.S.-imposed “oil blockade” of Venezuela, which is the lynchpin of the Trump administration’s push for regime change in both countries.
In the last two years, the U.S. government has unleashed a barrage of sanctions on shipping companies exporting crude from Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. The sanctions have not only badly damaged Venezuela’s ability to bring in much needed foreign currency; they have precipitated an energy crisis in Cuba, which depends on Venezuelan crude to power the island.
There are also corporate interests at play, and have been ever since Cuba nationalized its oil refineries in the 1960s, and Venezuela further nationalized oil production in the early 2000s. Not only has ExxonMobil been using international courts to seek $10bn compensation from Venezuela for lost assets, but last year the multinational also filed a suit for $280 million in compensation for a refinery, gas stations and other assets nationalized after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Washington’s evidence-free rhetoric on Cuba and Venezuela fall short, however, upon examining the oil interests – both geopolitical and corporate – shaping U.S. foreign policy towards these countries.
In fact, under-reported players in South Florida energy politics—the Cuban- and Venezuela-American 1%—prove to be essential sources of power and influence behind recent U.S. aggressions.
So how do a Hialeah Ford dealer, the man supplying gas for Miami’s airport and police department, and the construction firm responsible for major sections of the Dakota Access Pipeline figure into Trump’s attacks on the two socialist countries?
When asked if the money flows from Florida industries influence U.S. policies towards Cuba, William LeoGrande, a Professor of Government at American University, said: “To a certain extent, it [does]. One of the reasons that Republicans have such regard for Cuban American hardliners is that over the years they have contributed millions and millions of dollars to Republican candidates, both at the state level and national.”
Belly of the Beast connects the dots between Big Oil and the hybrid wars on the Cuban and Venezuelan people.
What The U.S. Is Really After
Both Cuba and Venezuela have a tragic history of foreign domination over their essential industries, especially when it comes to oil and precious minerals. Before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, 80% of Cuba’s energy and telecommunications industries were owned by U.S. and foreign companies. Standard Oil, Texaco and Royal Dutch Shell, now ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, controlled Cuba’s lucrative refining and distribution of imported fuel in Havana as well as Santiago de Cuba.
The Moa nickel-cobalt mine in eastern Cuba, a major foreign income source, was built with a $100 million U.S. government investment in the late 1950s by the Freeport Sulphur Co. of New Orleans, now Phoenix-based multinational Free-McMoRan. Other oil-dependent Cuban industries, like the railroads, telecommunications and sugar refining, were majority or exclusively owned by U.S. investors and subsidiaries.
Similarly, in Venezuela, ExxonMobil arrived in 1921, joining British and Dutch oil corporations in exploiting the Maracaibo basin. U.S. dominance of Venezuelan oil had become so extensive that it proved the United States’ most secure supply of oil during World War II. After decades of foreign dominance and bonanza in the booming industry, relations soured as Carlos Andres Perez sought to nationalize Venezuela’s oil industry and created the Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) in 1976. Despite reconciling during the apertura petrolera (oil opening) of the 1990s, seeking foreign investment for the development of the Orinoco oil belt, Hugo Chavez’s surprise election in 1998 brought radical, even structural changes to the country’s top income generator.
For Cuba, after the triumph of the nationalist revolution in 1959, escalating tensions with the U.S. led to the nationalization and expropriation of all foreign oil as they refused to refine the Soviet oil Cuba received in exchange for the sugar the U.S. now rejected. Continued imperial reactions to the consolidation and achievements of Cuba’s nascent revolution produced mass exodus of the middle and upper classes—many professionals linked to extractive industries—as well as coordinated attempts from abroad to undermine Cuba’s principal industries.
Bioterrorism, assassination attempts, a sustained trade embargo, terrorist attacks against tourist facilities, a media war, legal battles versus Cuba’s exportable products—all and more have defined the Cuban-American elite’s obsessive siege on Cuba’s political economy for over sixty years. But what about the oil industry?
In Venezuela, after increasing taxes on foreign oil producers and further consolidating national control of PDVSA, Hugo Chavez made enemies with the oil bourgeoise and multinationals, facing industry strikes, coup attempts and plant shutdowns. Throughout the early 2000s, as ExxonMobil was forced to hand over major projects to PDVSA, the re-nationalization led to a similar exodus of the Venezuelan oil class as had happened in Cuba. Exonn executives and country representatives also waged legal and political battles.
Through the Bolivarian process, Chavez was able to create ALBA-TCP, a regional integration mechanism for the continent’s sovereign and leftist nations that modelled South-South cooperation and distributed Venezuela’s oil wealth to its Latin American and Caribbean allies through Petrocaribe. This result of the Pink Tide in Latin America, among initiatives like Telesur, the Bank of the South, and Petrosur, decreased regional dependency on U.S. oil, benefitted the Caribbean and Central America, and helped Cuba’s economic stabilization after the Special Period of the 1990s, including a new oil refinery in Cienfuegos.
But not only did the Cuban people benefit from subsidized or no-cost Venezuelan oil; the Venezuelan working class did too, from the Cuban health, culture and literacy missions, such as Barrio Adentro and Misión Robinson, now common throughout the country. Under Chavez’s PDVSA, which since 1986 has owned a majority share of U.S. oil refiner and distributor CITGO, the U.S. poor and people of color also benefited from Venezuelan oil, as Joe Kennedy’s Citizens Energy Corporation worked with Chavez to deliver free heating fuel to homeless shelters, low-income communities of colors and Native American reservations.
The sustained attacks on Venezuelan oil, and the Bolivarian process more generally, have not desisted, and even increased in March 2015 after the Obama administration declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.
Through sanctions against Venezuelan financial institutions and state enterprises, the United States has paralyzed Venezuela’s economy, particularly its oil sector. Amidst rightwing lawmaker Juan Guaidó delcaring himself president in January 2019 and numerous U.S.-backed coup attempts being thwarted by Venezuelan security forces, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned PDVSA—blocking oil shipments to the U.S., looting its subsidiary CITGO, and instructing all U.S. operators, including the last remaining, Chevron, to wind down operations by December.
U.S. sanctions have also prevented Venezuela from obtaining the spare parts, diluents like naphtha and international financing necessary to keep oil production going, leading to a plummeting fall in output and exports, particularly since 2017. For Cuba, these structural shortages were exacerbated by specific Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designations of Venezuelan, mostly PDVSA, ships arriving to Cuba. Liberian, Cypriot, Greek and other international shipping companies and insurers, as well as Cuban importers, were also added to the U.S. government’s blacklist, making it nearly impossible to secure adequate levels of fuel for the country.
These measures precipitated an energy crisis in Cuba in September 2019, from which the country has not fully recovered, creating extraordinary shortages, blackouts, lines and temporary measures not seen since the early 1990s. Despite the Cuban people’s resolve and ingenuity, the frontal attack on Cuba-Venezuela trade complicates Cubans’ daily life, increasing the costs, waiting time, and limitations of just about everything on the island.
The Treasury and State Departments claim Cuban military presence in Venezuela and its uncompromising support for Venezuela’s democratically elected president Nicolas Maduro justify these devastating measures, alleging the foreign currency Cuban government- and military-owned industries generate keep Maduro in power.
Yet former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes disagrees.
“They have an agenda to go after both Venezuela and Cuba… their approach seems to be nakedly political and ideological – using regime change in Venezuela as an entry point to pursue regime change in Cuba.”
So if it’s not the Cuban military to blame for the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, who is?
Many U.S. industries, interests and individuals benefit from, and push for, the War on Venezuela, as they do in their War on Cuba. While pursuing overt and covert regime change strategies to regain control of the socialist countries’ resources, U.S. corporations buy politicians who will pass legislation to impede foreign investment in, subvert the competitiveness of, and block any U.S. market-share for Cuban and Venezuelan exportable goods and services.
Industries from sugar to tobacco, tourism and finance, have played a role in pushing for aggressive U.S. laws and measures against Cuba. Yet the foundational nature of the fossil fuel economy gives this industry an outsized influence in political lobbying, campaign contributions and policy outcomes in Washington.
The fundamentally illegal, extractive and contested practices of the U.S. oil industry at home and abroad, no different than the role they have played in regime change efforts in Cuba and Venezuela.
Aside from lawsuits, mass protests and international probes, key figures in the U.S. oil industry have been, along with some of their allied political figures, under federal criminal investigation.
Public and vocal politicians like Marco Rubio, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and President Donald Trump may receive the lion’s share of media attention for their attacks on Cuba and Venezuela, but recent and past investigations into former Miami congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who misused campaign funds for lavish family vacations; Rubio pal and former congressman David Rivera, who accepted millions to consult for PDVSA despite being a fervent Maduro critic; and president-elect of the Inter-American Development Bank, Mauricio Claver-Carone, who solicited millions in corporate donations to overthrow Cuba’s government, shed light on the extent of shady dealings and economic spoils enjoyed by rightwing Cuban-American political figures interested in anything but human rights and democracy in Cuba and Venezuela.
ExonnMobil proves omnipresent in the dual strategy of regime change in Cuba and Venezuela. Trump’s hand-picked Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the man who first set the administration’s Cuba-Venezuela policy, was CEO of ExxonMobil during its peak tensions with Chavez in 2007. Not just a friend of Trump’s, ExxonMobil also contributed to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. The Center for American Progress said of the multinational: “at no time in recent U.S. history has one company been at the brink of attaining so much power and influence over U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign.”
Asides from its $10 billion lawsuit against the Venezuelan government, ExonnMobil has also filed a $280 million dollar claim under Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act against the Cuban government-owned oil industry for Standard Oil’s assets, including its Havana refinery, pre-1959. The multinational is also fueling tension between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana, exacerbated by Mike Pompeo’s recent visit, by pursuing U.S.-backed drilling in the disputed Essequibo territory—an oil-rich region subject to UN mediation, which Venezuela claims.
A strategic figure in protecting Exonn’s interests in the region is Juan Guaido’s “fake” ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, a rightwing opposition politician who served as Exonn’s chief counsel in its spat with PDVSA. Asides from pledging to open up new oil deals in a post-Maduro scenario, Vecchio has pledged to probe Cuba’s storage, refining and resale of Venezuelan crude, a considerable source of income he claims Cuba “doesn’t need” and should be handed over to “impartial” international organizations.
Vecchio has been the Venezuelan opposition’s main proponent of further sanctions against PDVSA and its shipments to Cuba, arguing that revenues from oil shipments to Cuba could have been used for COVID-19 humanitarian assistance — despite the fact millions of Venezuelans receive free healthcare from approximately 20,000 Cuban health workers in exchange for the fuel the country sends Cuba. Vecchio has also looted PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, CITGO, whose revenues once facilitated purchases abroad of food and medicine for Venezuelans, but now fill the coffers of Vecchio’s opposition cabal of pre-Chavez oil executives.
One of the most infamous billionaire Cuban-American clans responsible for decades of subversive and legislative attacks on Cuba, the Mas family, similarly amassed much of its wealth from fossil fuels. Patriarch Jorge Mas Canosa, who founded the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in 1981, founded MasTec, a publicly traded construction and engineering firm focused on energy, utilities and communications infrastructure. Self-styled as one of the largest Latino-owned businesses in the U.S., MasTec’s profits rose more than 90% in 2017 due to high demand for fossil fuel pipelines, including its role in building a major section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Part of MasTec’s profits are funneled into regime change efforts in Cuba, by funding the well-known dissident groups Unión Patriotica de Cuba (UNPACU) and Damas de Blanco through CANF. At one point exercising enormous influence over U.S.-Cuba policy through CANF, Mas Canosa sponsored numerous terrorist attacks in Cuba against tourist facilities, and in the United States against pro-Cuba advocates, yet their Miami don status shielded them from accountability. Becoming the richest Cuban exile organization, CANF’s oil-fueled influence—including MasTec’s recent $500 million contract to revamp Puerto Rico’s electrical grid after Hurricane Maria, a deal the firm could only dream of with a friendly government in Havana—establishes clear links between the U.S. fossil fuel industry and the War on Cuba.
But other major players in South Florida’s energy sector also channel profits to anti-Cuba advocacy, seemingly the rule rather than an exception. Maximo Alvarez, a Cuban-American oil distributor who owns Sunshine Gasoline, was recently featured at the Republican National Convention calling for regime change and sanctions against Cuba while praising Trump. Alvarez, a Pedro Pan Group trustee who said Rubio is like a son to him, supplies 515 South Florida gas stations (owning 360 of them), including the airport and police department, and got his start working for ExxonMobil, whose fuel he now distributes.
Gus Machado, once the country’s top Ford dealers, also channels fossil fuel profits to inflict harm on Cuba. Machado founded the Cuba Democracy PAC in 2003, the single largest ethnic PAC and formerly, after AIPAC, the leading foreign policy contributor. Receiving its funding from Cuban-American exiles who have filed Title III claims, the Cuba Democracy PAC was led by lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone and has donated millions to Republican political campaigns, including Rubio’s, since its foundation.
NextEra Energy Inc., owner of the country’s third largest utility, Florida Power and Light Company, is also complicit in the attacks on Cuba, as it’s proved to be a reliable Rubio donor since the start of his career and in turn been rewarded with lucrative federal contracts. While presenting itself as the world’s largest wind and solar generator, the power producer heavily relies on coal, oil and nuclear energy, recently describing itself as “the largest generator of natural gas in the United States.” Recently surpassing ExxonMobil in market value, the multibillion dollar utility, according to Integrity Florida, exerts unprecedented control over the Florida state legislature, from where many Cuban-American politicians have launched their profitable anti-Cuba careers.
Cubans Respond to War
While the links between South Florida’s extractive industries and the War on Cuba and Venezuela are indisputable the victims of these regime change efforts are also clear: the Cuban and Venezuelan people.
The hollow claims of the energy sector and its political representatives on Cuba and Venezuela—expressions of their own calculated financial and political interests—fall short upon examining the human impact of their policies.
Misael Ponce, an organic farmer in Havana, explains that due to the current fuel shortages, he must till 90% of his field with oxen. “This inevitably affects the food available to the population.”
With limited oil to transport products, Ponce says, more fruits and vegetables rot before making it to market.
While the Cuban government has made significant investments in renewables, the head of Cuban organization Cuba Solar, Luis Berriz, says that the U.S. blockade even impacts Cuba’s ability to produce solar panels.
“There are so many things that limit us. It’s not just the transportation, the fuel, that never arrives. The parts to make solar panels aren’t sold, we don’t have anything in the stores, and that’s because of the blockade. We have the knowledge to make them but we don’t have the resources,” he explained.
Cuba has tried to expand its limited national oil production with Russian investment in Boca de Jaruco, and, according to University of Texas professor Jorge Piñon, the island maintains oil cooperation agreements with Algeria, but the crisis persists, as supply cannot meet demand.
After another acute energy crisis caused by the fall of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Sergio Herrera became one of Havana’s first “bike-taxi” drivers. “There has been a general crisis in almost everything, in money, food, it’s not just a lack of fuel but rather a total blockade against everything…it’s like a chain which affects us all,” he said.
Nonetheless, Cubans have learned to get by, or “resolver,” given the shortages, taking old junk and turning it into something useful. As the saying goes: Necessity is the mother of invention.
“We use what we have to survive and improve our lives. We are tough, resilient. We need to be!” explains journalist Liz Oliva in episode two of The War on Cuba.
Yet the multilayered impacts of the ongoing assaults on Cuba’s access to energy create discontent and frustration in the population, with long lines, crowded buses and planned electrical outages common realities of Cuban daily life.
This discontent—an intentional part of the U.S. War on Cuba—drives many Cuban youth to dream of life abroad, leading to brain drain and an aging population. Many young Cubans leave seeking to support their family economically, while others simply cannot deal with the frustration of the difficulties regular fuel shortages create on the island.
The War on Venezuela rewards Big Oil through lucrative contracts for security firms, preferential deals for weapons manufacturers and promises of new business opportunities, enjoying bipartisan support even from Cuban-American Democratic congressmen like Bob Menendez and Albio Sires.
Yet these policies come at the expense of the Cuban people, who continue to resist and find alternatives.
“In Cuba, we’re used to getting by, one way or another,” Oliva explains. “The oil blockade is just one part of the War on Cuba. There’s more to come.”
In its insatiable quest for hydrocarbons, Big Oil not only covets Venezuela’s vast reserves, but pursues regime change in Havana. Despite their resilience and innovation, the Cuban government and people are up against some of the world’s most powerful corporations. In this David and Goliath struggle, Cuba deserves our solidarity, now more than ever.