What will befall Venezuela's special relationship with Cuba if President
Hugo Chavez should falter in October?
Last Modified: 27 Mar 2012 10:35
New York, NY - As Venezuela counts down to its presidential election in
October, many may wonder what will befall the country's special
relationship with Cuba if Chavez should falter. In recent years,
Venezuela has pursued unprecedented ties to the Communist island nation
and recently, Chavez drew international headlines when the ailing
president travelled to Cuba to remove malignant and cancerous tumours in
his body. With a big question mark now hanging over Chavez's health and
the rightist opposition looking more politically viable than previously,
the Cuba-Venezuela alliance could easily crumble.
Though Chavez's close ties to the Castro brothers are well known, secret
US diplomatic cables disclosed by whistleblowing outfit WikiLeaks
underscore just how tight the alliance has become in recent years. In
2006, the Americans noted that regular military and commercial flights
brought hundreds of passengers from Cuba to Venezuela every day.
According to reports, airport officials "spirited" the passengers
through the airport without stopping in customs or immigration. Most
Cubans did not become naturalised Venezuelan citizens, but nonetheless
received official documentation from the authorities, with more than
20,000 doctors working in the health sector and perhaps, thousands more
"active in the Venezuelan interior".
Chavez had created "Mision Barrio Adentro" or "Inside the Neighbourhood
Mission", a programme to provide basic healthcare to disadvantaged
neighbourhoods, back in 2003. After providing oil to Cuba at discount
prices, Venezuela received Cuban doctors in exchange. Meanwhile, Cuban
involvement in the Venezuelan agricultural sector was reportedly second
only to that in the health sector, with officials from the Communist
island nation holding senior positions in Chavez's Ministry of
Agriculture. In addition, the Cubans advised Chavez on agricultural
productivity and how to set up farming co-operatives.
What is more, Cuba helped to design and manage Chavez's so-called
"Mision Mercal", a subsidised grocery programme and advised Venezuela on
how to handle food distribution. According to the US Embassy, Venezuela
financed some of its food imports through a "Havana branch of the
Industrial Bank of Venezuela, and Chavez's brother Adan Chavez, the
Venezuelan Ambassador there, may profit illicitly from the loan process".
Intelligence and diplomatic services
In addition, the US Embassy in Caracas took heed of Chavez's growing
collaboration with Cuba on sensitive intelligence matters. US diplomats
remarked with concern that "Cubans may… participate heavily in the BRV's
[Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela] efforts to naturalise foreigners and
provide documentation for citizens".
Reportedly, the Cubans provided key expertise to Chavez on how to expand
the country's national electoral registry, and through so-called "Mision
Identitidad" or "Identity Mission" the authorities were able to register
two million new voters.
One source told the US Embassy that "the Venezuelan process to receive
an identity card was a carbon copy of the Cuban process". Moreover, the
Americans suspected that Cubans held supervisory positions at the
Caracas airport and also provided innovative biometrics equipment.
If the US Embassy was correct, the ties ran even deeper. Chavez was
apparently so taken with the Castro brothers that he consulted directly
with Cuban intelligence officers without even bothering to vet the
reporting through his own intelligence services. Meanwhile, the Cubans
themselves trained and advised Chavez's security detail. Furthermore,
the Cubans openly trained Venezuelan intelligence officers in "both
political indoctrination and operational instruction" and some
Venezuelan military officers underwent "ideological training" in Cuba
Not mincing any words, the US Embassy declared that joint
Cuban-Venezuelan intelligence gathering "could impact US interests
directly". Chavez's intelligence service was among "the most hostile
towards the United States in the hemisphere", but fundamentally lacked
experience and expertise. With the help of the more seasoned Cubans,
however, Chavez would have more routine access to the activities of the
Inside Story Americas - Venezuela's voices of opposition
In tandem with developments within the intelligence sector, the
Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs had also fallen under some Cuban
influence. In May 2008, the Americans worried that the politicisation of
the Foreign Ministry was "nearly complete" and fretted over Chavez's
policy of sending young Venezuelan diplomats to Cuba for training. These
same individuals, the Embassy noted, were later reportedly promoted
rapidly and "often act as ideological watchdogs" or "commissars" within
Cuban role in other sectors
The Americans were concerned not only about growing Cuban presence in
the intelligence and diplomatic ranks, but also at Venezuelan ports. US
diplomats noted with growing alarm that a Cuban firm had a 49 per cent
share in Puertos del Alba, a state company which was focused on
renovating, constructing and modernising Venezuelan and Cuban ports.
Meanwhile, Cuban advisers acted as advisers to Bolipuertos, a
wholly-owned government company charged with management of Venezuelan
The Embassy also fretted about Cuban penetration of other sectors, for
example technology. Indeed, Venezuela had announced its intention to
transition to a network of small electrical generators which would be
distributed around the country. The system would be designed and draw
inspiration from the Cuban electrical model. In addition, the Cuban
Minister of Technology travelled to Venezuela in early 2010 to advise
the Chavez government on how to resolve the country's electricity crisis.
Venezuelan blogs speculated that the minister had a very different
mission in the country: "to use his technical expertise to assist the
GBRV clamp down on dissident voices finding expression through the
Internet and new media, such as Twitter".
In a further aside, Embassy officials remarked "the possibility raised
in the blogosphere that the Cubans might not only be here to lend their
electrical expertise but also their expertise in protecting potentially
embarrassing government information, i.e., factual data on the
deterioration of the electrical sector, represents a concern that the
GBRV may take new measures to dampen social discontent by restricting
access to public information".
The coming election
If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, Chavez has deepened
Cuban-Venezuelan collaboration to an unprecedented degree in a variety
of sectors. The question, however, is whether this collaboration is
ephemeral or will fall by the wayside in the event that Chavez suffers
an electoral defeat or should experience further health setbacks.
Chavez's officials have sometimes sought to tarnish the opposition by
claiming it would curtail the government's flagship social policies such
as the Cuban-staffed Mision Barrio Adentro programme. "It's a lie that
the bourgeois will continue the missions if they win," Chavez has said,
adding that "they will destroy them. They will get rid of the Cubans and
they will privatize health again".
However, Henrique Capriles Radonski, Chavez's conservative challenger in
the upcoming election, is on record saying that he does not oppose the
Cuban programme. Indeed, Capriles has gone as far to say that he would
be "mad" to overturn the best of Chavez's social policies. "The missions
belong to the people. I don't agree with this form of politics:
inventing stories to pressure, blackmail and psychologically terrorise
people," he declared.
It is difficult to imagine, however, that Capriles would be quite so
zealous as Chavez in pursuing Cuban ties. Indeed, as Mayor of the
Caracas municipality of Baruta, Capriles played a controversial role at
the Cuban Embassy during the short-lived coup d'etat against Chavez in 2002.
Venezuela's Chavez could face bolder opposition
During the political confusion, hundreds of angry middle-class
opposition demonstrators destroyed cars parked outside the Cuban embassy
in Capriles' district. Not stopping there, the mob cut off water and
electricity to the building and threatened to forcibly enter the
facility and do harm to the frightened occupants inside.
Later, Chavez officials charged that Capriles, as the leading authority
in Baruta, did not enforce the law and allowed the demonstrators to run
amok. During the incident Capriles was videotaped at the scene asking
Cuban officials for permission to inspect the embassy on behalf of the
Though the tape supports his claim that he tried to calm the crowd, it
also shows him speaking with the Cuban ambassador. In fact, what he is
shown asking is for the Cuban ambassador to supply him with proof that
there are no members of the government hiding inside the embassy.
For their part, Chavez officials charged that Capriles was demanding the
right to inspect the embassy, which was a violation of international
norms. Irate staff at the Cuban embassy later issued a statement
reading: "The immediate responsibility of Mr Capriles Radonsky and other
Venezuelan state authorities was demonstrated when they failed to act
diligently in order to prevent an increase in the aggression to which
our embassy was subjected, causing serious damage and endangering the
lives of officials and their families in clear violation of national and
A different psychology?
In the event that Capriles does win and puts a break on Cuban-Venezuelan
collaboration, what would be the psychological response of the
Venezuelan people? In recent years, Cubans have become increasingly more
visible on television, particularly on Chavez's own talk show Alo,
Presidente! In addition, images of crossed Cuban and Venezuelan flags
have appeared in Caracas.
According to the US Embassy, Chavez has invested much time and effort in
promoting Cuban involvement in Venezuelan society, but locals still hold
a decidedly "mixed" view of the island nation. While some admire Cubans
for providing free health care, others disapprove of Cuba's political
Chief amongst the critics is the right-wing Chavez opposition, which has
done its utmost to "inflame a prejudice against Cubans". However, the
Americans believed that this political strategy had backfired as poor
Venezuelans did not share the right's anti-Communist hysteria.
How far would the right dare to roll back the Cuban presence, and what
would be the reaction from impoverished Venezuelans? It's still unclear
at this point, though it all points to a volatile political season in
the coming months.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise
of the New Left, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Handbook.