How will Venezuela’s vote affect ties with Cuba?

What will befall Venezuela’s special relationship with Cuba if President Hugo Chavez should falter in October?

Cubans advised Chavez on agricultural productivity and how to set up farming co-operatives [GALLO/GETTY]

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.

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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 itself. 

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 US government.

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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 BRV embassies.

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 ports. 

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.

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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 angry mob.

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 international law.”

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 system. 

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.