Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ties bolster regimes in Havana and Caracas

September 14, 2011 7:28 pm
Ties bolster regimes in Havana and Caracas
By Benedict Mander in Caracas

When Hugo Chávez recently took his third round of chemotherapy, the
Venezuelan president opted to do so in Caracas rather than in Havana,
where he had received previous treatments for his undisclosed type of

For some, this was a sign the fiery 57-year-old socialist might be
getting better. For others, it was a political move designed to counter
criticism that Mr Chávez was turning Venezuela into a satellite of
communist Cuba.

Few topics are more controversial in Caracas. In return for billions of
dollars of aid, about 50,000 Cubans already work in Venezuela, mostly as
doctors but also in military intelligence. Together they make for a
mysterious but pervasive presence that Héctor Pérez Marcano, a
Venezuelan former guerrilla leader, has called Cuba's "second invasion"
of the country.

Mr Pérez, who participated in a first abortive Cuban invasion of
Venezuela in 1967, says this second invasion is the fruit of a
"political seduction" campaign by Fidel Castro to convince Mr Chávez to
shore up Cuba's teetering economy. "Fidel realised he could use Chávez
as an instrument," he says.

Even so, the result is a symbiotic relationship that has been key to
shoring up both governments in Havana and Caracas.

Mr Chávez and Mr Castro – his mentor and hero – first spoke of the
single nation "Venecuba" in 2005. Today, Venezuela sends some 115,000
barrels of subsidised oil each day to the energy-starved Caribbean
island nation. In return, Havana sends professionals to work in
Venezuela to bolster Mr Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution".

Carlos Romero, an expert on Cuba-Venezuela relations at the
Centraniversity of Venezuela, calculates that accumulated aid from
Caracas to Havana between 1999 and 2009 amounts to $19.4bn, about 70 per
cent of Venezuela's total foreign aid during that period. That includes
$14.2bn in payment for professional services such as doctors and $3.4bn
forgone by selling Cuba oil at less than market prices. Furthermore,
Cuba owes Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA at least $5bn for late
payment on the oil. Both governments declined to comment for this article.

It is not hard to find Cubans working in Venezuela's barrios, or slums,
bolstering social programmes that have helped sustain Mr Chávez's
popularity ahead of elections next year. Especially important has been
barrio adentro, where physicians provide free primary healthcare to a
third of the population, according to government statistics.

Halfway up the hillside to the east of Caracas in Petare, one of Latin
America's biggest slums, stands one of barrio adentro's red-brick
octagonal structures. Inside, a Cuban doctor attends a long queue of
patients. He declined to be interviewed, explaining that he was
forbidden to talk to journalists.

But one of the 1,800 Cubans estimated to have defected from Venezuela
was more forthcoming from the safety of Miami. "We worked like mules,
for a minimum wage ... I had no life," said the medic, who requested
anonymity for fear of reprisals against her family. "With all the street
violence, I never went outside, working and living in the same place. It
was inhuman."

About 30,000 Cubans work in Venezuela's health sector, Mr Romero
estimates, and thousands more work in areas such as sport, agriculture,
telecommunications and industry.

However, the most controversial aspect of Cuba's connection with
Venezuela is its military influence, which is promoted by Mr Chávez.

"Yes, there is military co-operation, which perhaps worries the
bourgeoisie," said Mr Chávez last year. "Well, the bourgeoisie can rest
easy. Everything Cuba does for us is to strengthen the fatherland."

General Antonio Rivero, who stood down from the Venezuelan army last
year in protest, disagrees. He says Cubans are closely involved in the
organisation of security and defence systems.

"No Venezuelan soldier in his right mind can approve of such actions.
They can be obeyed, because they are orders, but the surrender of our
sovereignty cannot be accepted."

With their careers on the line, most in the military may put up with the
Cuba presence in silence, but it is likely to be a divisive topic in the
elections next year.

No comments:

Post a Comment