By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
What got my attention recently was the video above of Huge Chavez and
Fidel Castro shooting the breeze in their track suits.
Fidel Castro, of course, led Cuba for 50 years, starting in 1959. His
pal Hugo Chavez has been president of Venezuela since 1999.
Chavez has been in Cuba to undergo chemotherapy for his recently
He could have summoned the very best doctors to his home. He was invited
to go to a world class cancer facility in Brazil. But he chose Havana.
Cuba has a cheap and surprisingly good healthcare system, but Chavez's
attachment to Cuba is more than just medical - it's political. He's
making the statement that he supports the Cuban model.
Unfortunately, that model is crumbling. It is totally out of sync with
the modern world.
Chavez has gone so far as to talk of a "Venecuba", a merger between two
allied states. These kinds of ideas - these two men - are relics of
another era. While much of the region has embraced free markets and free
trade, riding a wave of fast growth and rising incomes, "Venecuba" has
Brazil grew at nearly eight percent last year. The Venezuelan economy
shrank by two percent. The year before that, it contracted by another
three percent, and that's despite OPEC announcing this week that
Venezuela has more proven oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. People in the
most oil-rich nation in the world actually suffer from rolling blackouts
thanks to years of bad leadership.
Meanwhile, Cuba and its finances are in free-fall, surviving only
because of Venezuela.
Remember that Cuba has been a basket case for decades, but it was
sustained by billions in Soviet aid. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union
collapsed. Havana lost its ideological ally and its major sponsor. The
economy contracted by a third and there were dire food and fuel shortages.
Enter Hugo Chavez. When he became president, he immediately sought the
blessing of his hero, Fidel Castro. Association with Castro gave Chavez
revolutionary street cred. In return, Chavez has virtually written Cuba
a blank check.
According to a Brookings Institute study, Caracas ships 115,000 barrels
of oil to Cuba at discounted prices every day. That accounts for 60
percent of the island's oil demand. In total, Venezuela's various types
of aid to Cuba is said to add up to nearly $5 billion a year. Havana
returns the favor by sending tens of thousands of doctors and nurses the
It doesn't sound like a fair trade. In Cuba, there are signs the
leadership realizes it needs to wean itself off Venezuela's largesse.
Fidel Castro's younger brother, Raul, is now president and is trying to
seek out investment from China, India and Brazil. But, structurally, not
much has changed in Cuba since 1991. The island nation is still run on
socialist principles that have produced shortages, black markets and
Imagine what happens to Cuba without Venezuela's support, and imagine
what happens in Venezuela if its people begin asking questions about why
they suffer one of the world's highest rates of inflation, a contracting
economy and one of the worst crime rates despite having more oil than
any other nation in the world. One day, these two countries will look
around, see that Latin America is leaving them behind, and face the future.
So remember the images in the video above of the two amigos. They might
turn out to represent the last hurrah of a dying world.