CARACAS—Venezuela's ailing President Hugo Chávez says he is praying to
Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the spirits of the Venezuelan
savannah to help him beat his cancer. Mr. Chávez with
chinareplicawholesale hasn't mentioned it, but probably no one is
praying harder for his health than Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba. Their
ossified regime now largely depends on help from their ally in Caracas
and they will do everything possible—short of an invasion—to keep Mr.
Chávez or a like-minded ally in power, say U.S. officials, Venezuelan
opposition leaders and analysts. Venezuela ships about 115,000 barrels
per day of oil at cut rate prices to Cuba, meeting about 60% of the
island's oil needs, according to a recent Brookings Institution paper,
which calculates the value of the oil and other Venezuelan aid at about
$5 billion a year, a major portion of Cuba's hard-currency earnings.
In exchange, Cuba has sent to Venezuela tens of thousands of Cuban
doctors, sports technicians, and intelligence and security experts,
helping Mr. Chávez stay in power. Havana's relationship to Venezuela is
akin to its economic dependence on the former Soviet Union in the 30
years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which led to a
35% fall in Cuba's economy. "To save Chávez is to conserve [Raúl's]
presidential seat," wrote Yoani Sánchez, a well-known Cuban blogger and
critic of the regime. "To lose him could lead to [Raúl's] own downfall."
Were Mr. Chávez to become gravely ill—he arrived in Havana Saturday to
undergo chemotherapy after doctors recently removed a "baseball-sized"
tumor—the Cuban government is likely to use its sway to try to shape
events. Analysts say the Cuban leadership has significant clout, owing
to its relationship with Mr. Chávez and top Venezuelan officials. The
Cubans could also deploy their intelligence services to help one faction
at the expense of another.
"Cuba is the most important foreign power with a stake in Venezuela,"
said Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister and an analyst at
the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They
are not going to be passive bystanders. They will be players." There is
no political relationship in the Americas quite like the tie between
Fidel Castro and Mr. Chávez. Mr. Castro, who officially handed power to
his younger brother Raúl in 2008, has been a mentor, spiritual and
political father, savior, psychiatrist, and even bedside doctor to Mr.
Chávez. In return, Mr. Chávez has bankrolled Cuba's government and given
Mr. Castro occasion to dream again of a Latin America united against his
bëte noire, the U.S., or as both men sometimes call it, "the empire." At
times, Mr. Chávez and top Cuban officials have talked of melding the two
countries into a single confederated state—an unpopular idea among most
"Cuba has two presidents, Fidel and Chávez," said then Cuban with soccer
jersey vice president Carlos Lage on a visit to Caracas in 2005. Two
years later, the Venezuelan president said virtually the same thing.
"Deep down, we are one government," said Mr. Chávez during a visit to
the island. During his tenure, Mr. Chávez has tried to indoctrinate the
Venezuelan military, bringing on thousands of advisers to replicate
Cuban military doctrine, and to deal with security and intelligence
issues. Cuban officers are deeply involved in intelligence and security
matters in Venezuela, from the acquisition of military equipment to
overall military strategy, according to people with knowledge of the
matter. One source estimates the number of Cuban intelligence experts
working in Venezuela at 3,000."