The U.S. Sanctioned Venezuela Right Before It Warmed Up to Cuba

Dec 18, 2014 at 10:26 AM ET

A week before Obama’s surprise Cuba announcement, President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela called the U.S. “arrogant imperialist Yankees”—pretty standard stuff. But on Wednesday, after President Barack Obama announced steps toward normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, Maduro seemed to have changed his tone. He said Obama’s move was “a brave and necessary gesture in history.”

What’s behind this pair of seemingly dissonant responses?

Cuba’s primary benefactor is Venezuela. Venezuela makes 96 percent of its foreign currency income from oil, and the price of oil has plunged in the past few weeks. Needless to say, the Venezuelan economy is not doing so well—the value of its currency has fallen over 30 percent just in the last month. Given that experts say around 15 percent of Cuba’s GDP relies on the Venezuelan economy, the timing of Cuba’s renewed closeness to the U.S. couldn’t be more opportune. And given that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuela to afford its subsidies to Cuba, it makes perfect sense that Maduro would be relieved to think some support for the Cuban economy will come from the U.S.

Behind the nasty “imperialist” comment is a long history of shared Cuban-Venezuelan hatred of American capitalism in the ’90s—promulgated by Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, the countries’ leaders at the time.

The idea that America is expansionist at heart is a hangover from the Monroe Doctrine days of the mid-1800s, when Western countries fought over control of Latin American territories. And last week, when Obama signed a new round of sanctions against Venezuelans, hundreds of Maduro supporters were livid at his so-called “imperialism.”

The sanctions included taking away the visas of government officials the U.S. deemed responsible for human rights violations in Venezuela (this, the same week that the CIA released its damning “torture report”).

So while many of Americans and Cubans are excited to rekindle an international friendship, some Venezuelans still staunchly believe the U.S. is “imperialist” in its objectives. Hence the proliferation of the hashtag #Imperialismo across Venezuela. It’s often used in conjunction with EE.UU., or U.S. in Spanish.

Some example tweets:

Translation: “Sanctions, financial blockade, a new strategy of imperialism against Venezuela.”

Translation: “How weird that when Cuba ran out of anti-imperialism, Venezuela ran out of money.”

Translation: “Cuba has ended anti-imperialism, as Venezuela has run out of money.”

Translation: “A second reading of the Cuban-American agreement: Venezuela is left alone in its anti-imperialist stance against the U.S.”