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Latin America Report

Will sanctions suffering for Russia mean more pain for Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meet in Moscow in 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meet in Moscow in 2013.

Dictatorial regimes in this hemisphere rely on Russia to help them circumvent U.S. and E.U. sanctions. Can that continue now that Russia is the heavy sanctions target?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the U.S. and E.U. have slammed Moscow with historically severe economic sanctions. But could those penalties also cause pain for Russia's allies in this hemisphere — especially the dictatorial regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua?

WLRN Americas editor Tim Padgett spoke about this with Miami Herald and Nuevo Herald reporter Antonio Maria Delgado.

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Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity:

PADGETT: Antonio, you wrote a really interesting report in the Herald looking at how the international sanctions on Russia's financial system now could make life a lot harder for Vladimir Putin's buddies in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. How specifically?

DELGADO: Well, for example, Venezuela: As you know, the U.S. imposed sanctionson Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime a few years ago, and they make it very hard for Venezuela to export its oil to the U.S. and around the world. And one of the things the sanctions do is prohibit members of the international financial system to be able to handle these Venezuelan oil transactions in U.S. dollars.

So what has been happening is that Maduro went to the Russians and they have been able to handle some of these transactions. Now there's quite a significant amount of Venezuelan money held in some of these Russian banks — and the Russian banks became important for the Venezuelan oil industry to keep functioning.

But now that the U.S. and Europe have decided to block some of these Russian banks from the SWIFT system of international transactions between banks, it's going to be more difficult for Venezuela to continue bypassing the U.S. sanctions.

READ MORE: The hemisphere's 'troika of tyranny' looks isolation-proofed. The U.S. can still undo that.

PADGETT: But now the U.S. is considering an embargo on Russian oil, too. And you and I have confirmed reportsthat over the weekend, U.S. officials met with Maduro officials in Venezuela and discussed, among other issues, possibly relaxing U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil to make up for the loss of Russian oil — that is, if Venezuela agrees to pull away from Putin and Russia. Did this surprise you as much as it surprised me?

DELGADO: Yes, and this has been very surprising to a lot of people, including the team of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, which we’ve learned was not consulted beforehand. And that’s shocking in part because it sends the signal that the United States might consider recognizing Maduro as the legitimate head of Venezuela, which would be a quite a reversal.

PADGETT: Because since 2019, the U.S. has recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's constitutionally legitimate president.

DELGADO: Yes. And I would add that this is also surprising because if the U.S. plans to use Venezuelan oil to mitigate the sudden absence of Russian oil, we’re not really talking about a lot of oil: Venezuela’s deteriorated industry produces less than a million barrels a day right now, usually more like 500,000, which is a fraction of [the 8 billion barrels per day] the U.S. imports.

But with the price of oil at more than $100 a barrel right now, you can understand why Maduro would want to do this.

Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua — these countries really don't have many more friends, they don't have many options. So it is also very possible they’ll just start looking for new ways to survive, as they've always done.
Antonio Maria Delgado

PADGETT: So let's talk about the predicament this causes for communist Cuba. I mean, Moscow loans billions of dollars to Cuba to help it prop up its wrecked economy.

DELGADO: Yes. We’ve got comments from the head of the Western Hemisphere for the National Security Council…

PADGETT: That's President Biden's top Latin America adviser, Juan Gonzalez.

DELGADO: Yes, Gonzalez, who was saying Cuba and Nicaragua are going to be hurting from these sanctions imposed on Russian banks as well, because they have been working with them — especially the elite members of the Cuban regime that have been accumulating wealth throughout the years. Same with officials in Nicaragua’s regime.


And it might also have an impact on the holdings of everyday Russians — the ones that may be looking into traveling to Cuba for tourism. They might not be able to afford it.

PADGETT: Right. The value of the Russian ruble has now crashed, and the Russian airline Aeroflot can't fly over European airspace now to get to Cuba. So the almost 200,000 Russians who were vacationing in Cuba each year can't come.

DELGADO: Yes, correct.

Ramon Espinosa
An Aeroflot passenger jet sits at the tarmac of the Jose Marti international airport after arriving from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, last year.

PADGETT: And as for Nicaragua, Putin has been a big supporter of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega — especially after Ortega “won” re-election last fall by throwing all his opponents in jail. Nicaragua is one of the world's poorest countries, Antonio. Can Ortega afford to lose his Russian support?

DELGADO: I don't know. I mean, these countries really don't have many more friends, they don't have many options. So it is also very possible they’ll just start looking for new ways to survive.

PADGETT: And if there’s one thing the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua know how to do, it’s survive.

DELGADO: Correct.

PADGETT: But it's interesting you say that because last week we may have seen a crack in their support for Putin. Cuba and Nicaragua abstained from a vote in the U.N. to condemn Russia's Ukraine invasion — meaning they didn't vote to oppose the war, but they didn't vote to support it, either. Do you think that indicates Cuba and Nicaragua stepping away from Putin?

DELGADO: It's very possible. It makes sense. I think they're being very careful.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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