Disclaimer: The following text is not purely fictitious, but loosely based on history and recent events around the Gulf of Mexico. Any resemblance to persons or actual events in any other Gulf is purely coincidental.
The current stand-off between the US and Venezuela over the constitutional crisis in the latter demonstrates how long-simmering tensions can quickly escalate, and have regional implications across the Gulf. Today’s confrontation is just the latest episode in a deep rivalry between important Gulf states. At stake is the regional balance of power, including ideological hegemony. Thus, the Gulf crisis has become an issue of pride and prejudice, affecting international scholars studying the region, and casting a spell of silence over entire populations.
The alliance of US and Mexico
After years of cold relations between the US and Mexico, the sudden closeness between the two nations has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Gulf. Donald Trump and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) have struck an unusually cozy relationship to the surprise of many. US tourists have always flocked to Cancun for its sunny beaches, fancy hotels and big malls. Now, however, Mexico is no longer only a weekend destination for its neighbor, as it has become a close ally – some would even say a mentor on foreign relations – contributing to a more assertive US foreign policy in the region.
The Bolivarian Revolution
Even though Venezuela is on the other side of the Gulf, it has long been considered a threat to the stability and regional aspirations of both the US and Mexico. As a socialist country – in competition with a capitalist US – Venezuela has tried to export its Bolivarian revolution across its borders as a way to counter American imperialist ambitions. This socialist-capitalist regional and ideological struggle has affected the relationship between the two countries for decades, but direct confrontation has usually been avoided. Instead, proxy wars in the region have been frequent.
Strategically placed between the US and Venezuela, Cuba has long been a maverick actor on the regional scene. Relations with both the US and Mexico have been tense for a long time, due to among other things Cuba’s closeness to Venezuela. Its active foreign policy, centered on its communist ideology, has been perceived as an affront by its bigger neighbors. As a result, Cuba has long been considered as “punching above its weight” in the region and beyond.
After decades of Castro rule, the transition to new president Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2018 gave a glimpse of hope to Cuba’s historic rivals in the Gulf. However, only two days after his inauguration, Diaz-Canel received the Venezuelan president, as the first foreign leader to visit him. This was a strong confirmation of the mutually important and strong relations between the two countries. Key to this relationship has been Venezuela’s instrumental role in supplying aid and support amid the embargo on Cuba, just as it has itself recently received help from Turkey.
Television, football and drug lords
The peoples and states of the Gulf share a number of things in common. They appreciate telenovelas (soap operas), are passionate about football, and have been deeply impacted by drug trafficking for years. Competition in the field of media has pitted the US-backed TV Marti against Cuba’s Institute of Radio and Television. The two networks have been regurgitating propaganda material which has escalated in the last few years, much to the dismay of their audiences. Some also argue that a less discussed reason for the deterioration of relations between the Gulf states is their rivalry and ambitions related to sports, especially football.
What is more, drug trafficking and other transnational illicit activities have been a common concern for the Gulf states. Cuba claims that it has taken seriously the fight against drugs. However, the US and Mexico argue that a number of high profile drug lords have been seeking refuge in Cuba for years. Dismay over what its neighbors perceive as Cuba’s double-standard approach to combating illicit activities, and its active role in fostering cross-border networks, have contributed to the current crisis in the Gulf region and beyond.
The bottom line: what about the people?
For the average Venezuelan, the sub-plot to the current crisis – pitting the states on the other side of the Gulf against each other – is the least of their concerns. Economic hardship, especially soaring inflation, has crippled life in the country, making it harder for people to live. On the other hand, the people of the other Gulf states have to a larger extent been impacted by the ongoing rift in the region, despite limited direct repercussions or hardships at home.
Americans are caught between, on the one hand, the ambitious “America First” vision and its economic transformation project and, on the other hand, the Trump Administration’s aggression and chauvinism, especially on social media. In this context, many Americans remain skeptical about discussing the crisis openly, causing a deep polarization of views. Moreover, the Administration has come under fire due to accusations of possible collusion with Russia, especially after a series of exposés by the Washington Post. This has led to the arrest of former insider Paul Manafort, who might be thrown under the bus accused of being a “rogue lone wolf”.
Some experts and scholars of the Gulf, both local and foreign, are themselves caught up in the crisis by openly taking sides in the conflict. In the era of “fake news” and biased analysis (and re-tweets), many citizens of the Gulf are losing interest in the crisis due to the lack of reliable news sources and genuine analysis. Some analysts from the region have also decided to keep quiet, so not to get entangled in the fatal nets of the Gulf waters.
Notwithstanding the real potential for further escalation, the possibility of the crisis withering away suddenly cannot be ruled out completely. In such a scenario, and in line with the typical twists and turns of the region’s soap operas, photos of Gulf leaders might once again cover the front pages of national newspapers under the headline: “One Gulf, One Nation.”