US-Cuba rapprochement isolates Venezuela: analysts

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) speaks with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a 2014 visit to Havana (AFP Photo/)
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Caracas (AFP) - Cuba's surprise move to restore diplomatic relations with Washington leaves Havana's close ally Venezuela further isolated in a shifting political landscape, analysts here say.

The stunning announcement on Wednesday was welcomed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro but it is likely to undercut the stridently anti-American stance he has adopted as his country slides into a deepening economic crisis.

"This announcement shakes up the Maduro government's US policy, including its political discourse, which is based in large part on the anti-imperialist struggle and the condemnation of the US embargo on Cuba," analyst Nicmer Evans told AFP.

Warmer ties between the United States and Cuba will likely have "profound implications for Venezuela," Evans added.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles lost no time in challenging Maduro as out of step.

"While Cuba seeks to improve its diplomatic and commercial ties with the United States, the government of Nicolas Maduro seeks to worsen its own, in order to use it as a smokescreen to take attention away from the serious economic and social crisis we are experiencing."

Even as its own economic situation has worsened, Venezuela has continued to use its oil wealth to support Cuba.

But with oil prices plunging, inflation topping 60 percent a year, and widespread shortages of basic goods, Venezuela is seen as increasingly at risk of a default.

And that may have been a factor in Cuba's decision to reconcile with Washington, analysts said.

The new deal Obama laid out for Cuba promises to give it greater access to US investment, and possibly greater trade if the US Congress allows a 54-year-old embargo to be lifted.

"Cuba lived through the special period (of serious economic crisis) in the 1990s, when the economic support of the countries under the Warsaw Pact suddenly dropped," said Milos Alcalay, a diplomat who previously served as vice minister of foreign affairs.

"Venezuela's structural economic crisis has led (Cuban President Raul) Castro to seek an alternative to avoid being caught by surprise."

- Comrades in diatribe -

Until now, Venezuela had found in Cuba a comrade in its anti-American diatribe.

But Caracas appears to have been caught off guard by Havana's rapprochement with Washington, Alcalay said.

"Everything suggests that Castro did not discuss with Maduro" the secret negotiations underway with Washington, he said.

"It is significant that at the same time that Venezuela's verbal confrontation toward the United States was increasing, Cuba adopted this constructive position," the diplomat said.

"Maduro's radical stance toward the US contrasts with the path of dialogue chosen by Cuba, but this could change."

Venezuela and the United States have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.

Relations between the two country soured under the late Hugo Chavez, and have remained tense under his handpicked successor, Maduro, who frequently accuses US officials of plotting against him.

Tensions have spiked again in recent days after the Obama administration said last week it would approve sanctions on Venezuelan officials passed by the US Congress.

"Idiots!" Maduro roared in condemning the "stupid" sanctions.

When the news about Cuba came, he was trying to mobilize the support of South American countries for a resolution condemning the United States, but his tone changed abruptly.

"Obama's gestures is courageous and necessary for history," he said.

"While Cuba's rapprochement with the United States may not immediately change Caracas's relationship with Havana, Venezuela's mounting economic distress and potential for unrest may make it see Cuba's improved ties with the United States as a potential threat in the long run," US analyst group Stratfor said.

"With Cuba openly engaging the United States, Maduro may have an additional incentive to seek his own rapprochement with the United States," Stratfor added.

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