Understanding Marco Rubio’s Ominous Tweets About Cuba and Venezuela

*The Breakdown is The North Star’s daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted on Monday morning that the US would “take the first in a series of steps” to hold the Cuban government “accountable” for 60 years of “crimes and illegality,” in reference to the hegemonic regime of the Castro Brothers, who took power in the late 1950s. Rubio went on to say that potential sanctions include Cuba’s support for Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. The Florida legislator ended his tweet, saying: “Justice is coming. And more to come.”

Two hours later, he blamed Chinese agents for helping Maduro block access to the Internet and social media platforms while adding that “tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Venezuela to welcome [Interim] President Juan Guaidó home” today.

Historical Context: In 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro ended more than 50 years of diplomatic estrangement between the two countries, paving the way to re-establish embassies in Havana and Washington. As US-Cuba relations began to thaw, more than 600,000 tourists visited the island nation in 2017—more than six times the pre-Obama level, according to some sources. But as soon as Trump assumed office, his administration banned US citizens from doing business with dozens of entities that have alleged ties with the Cuban military, intelligence, and security agencies. The first three months of 2018, only 95,520 US visitors went to Cuba, a 40 percent decrease from the same period in 2017, the Cuban government said.

US-Cuba relations under Trump worsened after allegations of a sonic attack against more than two dozen American diplomats, family members, and intelligence agents surfaced in August of 2017. Even though Havana rejected any involvement in the attack, Washington decided to reduce its embassy staff by 60 percent as retaliation. Cuba’s beleaguered economy found some respite with the rise of a socialist government in Venezuela. A 2018 report from Reuters found that the South American nation’s state-owned oil PDVSA bought at least $440 million worth of foreign oil and shipped it to Havana “on friendly credit terms.” Some detractors argue that Cuba’s form of payment to Caracas is the deployment of “spies, intelligence, and political advisers, counterintelligence agents” and “military trainers” to protect Maduro from any dissent within the Venezuelan army.

Beneath the Surface: Rubio’s tweet comes amid tougher sanctions on some of the region’s left-leaning nations. Days prior to the 2018 midterm elections, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton called Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua the “troika of tyranny.” Bolton also announced sanctions on over two dozen entities owned by the Cuban military and a ban on US citizens to make business dealings in Venezuelan gold. The move was regarded as a political strategy to gain support for the Republican party among the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora, particularly in south Florida.

This is not the first time the Trump administration has condemned both countries. During his first State of the Union in 2018, the president touted the White House’s “tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela,” and did so again at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York the same year, when he said:

“Currently, we are witnessing a human tragedy, as an example, in Venezuela. More than 2 million people have fled the anguish inflicted by the socialist Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors.

Not long ago, Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty.”

What’s Next: Following Rubio’s tweet, the Trump administration announced Monday that it would toughen its six-decade embargo on the island by allowing the US to file lawsuits against foreign companies operating from properties expropriated by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution, The Associated Press quoted US officials as saying. The announcement is seen as “retaliation” for Havana’s support of the Venezuelan regime, the news outlet noted.

Meanwhile, Guaidó has returned to Venezuela following a string of trips across South American nations last week. Diplomats from the US, Europe, and Latin America have feared he could be arrested upon arrival. Whether Maduro will order Guaidó’s arrest is still up for debate, as any imprisonment or harming of the interim president could ignite a foreign intervention on Venezuelan soil.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He's a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.