If the polls are to be believed, Hugo Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro will probably defeat the political opposition in Sunday’s presidential election, thus securing and solidifying Cuban-Venezuelan ties yet further. Such an outcome will come as a severe disappointment to Washington, which has spent the better part of 40 years trying to prevent such a diplomatic alliance from developing in the first place. For evidence of US paranoia over Cuba, one need only consult the so-called “Kissinger files”, sensitive State Department cables recently made accessible by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks. The correspondence, which dates between 1973 and 1976, underscores Henry Kissinger’s single-minded obsession with quarantining Cuba lest Castro’s influence be felt far afield.
In late 1973, US diplomats expressed concern about Venezuelan moves to end Cuba’s diplomatic isolation, and were particularly worried that Caracas might “put together Organization of American States [OAS] majority in support resolution permitting reestablishment relations with Cuba”. Washington was also perturbed by reports that Venezuelan Navy vessels had departed for Cuba in order to load up on large shipments of sugar, and diplomats contemplated a possible cutoff of aid to Caracas in retaliation.
Not only had the State Department become alarmed about such developments, but rightist anti-Castro exiles were becoming restive as well. According to the US Embassy in Caracas, the exiles were “appalled” at the prospect that COPEI, the current party in power, might renew relations with Cuba. In an ominous move, the exiles planned to publish full page newspaper ads against the COPEI administration. Hoping to punish COPEI at the polls, exiles threw their support to opposing party Accion Democratica (or AD) in the 1973 presidential election. Ultimately, the Americans noted, such support proved critical and “highly influential Cuban-Venezuelan entrepreneurs, backed by Cuban money from Miami” helped AD candidate Carlos Andres Perez secure an electoral victory.
The rise of CAP
If Kissinger or the Cuban exile community however hoped that Perez, sometimes known simply as “CAP”, would prove amenable to their designs they would be sorely disappointed. History has not been kind to CAP, largely due to the latter’s second and disastrous presidency which lasted from 1989 to 1993, during which time the veteran politician followed the diktats of the International Monetary Fund and nearly drove Venezuela to the point of social collapse. Nevertheless, during his first incarnation in the 1970s CAP was regarded as a nationalist and something of a galvanising figure on the Third World circuit. From 1974 to 1979, during his first presidency, CAP nationalised US oil companies and oversaw a programme of massive social spending.
Writing to Kissinger in Washington, the US ambassador in Caracas fretted that Venezuela now had “the economic strength and political leadership in President Perez to make her will felt beyond her borders”. Indeed, the diplomat added:
“The energy crisis and President Carlos Andres Perez’s electoral victory in December 1973 coincided and together have changed Venezuela’s perception of herself and her world role.”
Just like Chavez some 20 years later, CAP was “rapidly emerging as a hemisphere figure”. Taking advantage of windfall oil prices, CAP had turned Venezuela into a large international donor of development assistance. Personally, the ambassador feared that CAP had grown too big for his britches as the youthful firebrand politician was fast becoming “a Latin American spokesman for the developing third world countries vis-a-vis the developed nations, especially the Unites States”.
Reading through the Kissinger files, one is possessed with an incredible sense of déjà vu. Combing through paranoid US telegrams, it is easy to imagine that diplomats might have been referring not to CAP but to charismatic Hugo Chavez. Indeed, if anything the correspondence underscores just how hostile Washington has been to any nationalist politician emerging in Venezuela, particularly if such a figure threatened US priorities in the Caribbean. Specifically, US diplomats and anti-Castro exiles worried that CAP might use his newfound diplomatic clout to edge closer to Fidel.
Ratcheting up pressure on Cuba
In May 1974, the US ambassador in Caracas confronted the Venezuelan Foreign Minister with reports claiming that Venezuela sought to import sugar from Cuba. The ambassador explained that he would be “glad to explore ways and means of trying to find additional sugar for Venezuela from countries other than Cuba”. Defiantly, CAP shot back that “he intended to go ahead with trade exchanges, including the sale of Venezuelan rice for Cuban sugar”. Sure enough, in early 1975 the US Embassy noted that a Cuban vessel had loaded up on Venezuelan rice at a local port.
Even more seriously, the Americans fretted that CAP might be tempted to ship oil to Cuba in the event that OAS sanctions were removed. Already, the Soviets were interested in decreasing Cuban dependence on oil transported from the USSR, and indeed Perez reportedly related in private that Moscow had “been pressing him” to ship oil to the Communist island nation. In late 1976, CAP followed up by travelling to the USSR where he inked a deal to export oil to Cuba.
On the diplomatic front meanwhile, CAP angered the Americans by resuming relations with Cuba. In Caracas, the Cubans opened a new embassy and staff reportedly included five known intelligence officers. Cuban news agency Prensa Latina meanwhile expanded its activities greatly in Venezuela. In Washington, Kissinger grew alarmed that Venezuela and other sympathetic nations might move to end the sanctions regime on Cuba, and the Secretary therefore instructed his staff to delay any such vote at the OAS. Hardly deterred, CAP went ahead and organised an OAS conference in Quito in November, 1974. However, when CAP failed to obtain the necessary votes, the Venezuelan took out his frustrations on the Americans, remarking indignantly that Washington had bullied certain nations from either abstaining or voting against the OAS initiative.
CAP reacts to Posada attack
Naively perhaps, CAP told US diplomats that he was interested in becoming a kind of “bridge” between Washington and unfriendly Latin governments. Privately, American officials wrote that Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the US, was “far too important to allow us to drift into an adversary relationship”. “If we choose openly to combat greater Latin American unity,” the US ambassador wrote, “the US risks harming its highly important interests in Venezuela and exacerbating its relations with the hemisphere.”
Whatever the feelings at the State Department, however, the CIA might have had other ideas in mind. Still smarting from CAP’s betrayal, anti-Castro Cubans plotted against the island nation. One such figure was Cuban-born Luis Posada Carriles, a longtime CIA asset. During the 1970s Posada moved to Venezuela where he oversaw US intelligence operations. He is thought to be responsible for the worst terrorist attack in the hemisphere at the time, a hit on Cubana Flight 455 which departed Caracas en route to Cuba in October 1976. After a brief stopover in Barbados, the plane exploded in midair, killing all 73 passengers aboard.
Officially, Posada was no longer in the employ of the CIA at the time of the bombing, having left the agency in July. There’s no evidence that the CIA directly orchestrated the plot, though records show that Posada may have notified the agency in advance that a bomb was set to go off. In Caracas meanwhile, the government began to suspect that the US was engaged in foul play. Dismissing Cuban claims of US destabilisation as propaganda, American diplomats assured the Venezuelans, rather unconvincingly, that there was “no conspiracy underway to destabilise anything”.
The energy crisis and President Carlos Andres Perez's electoral victory in December 1973 coincided and together have changed Venezuela's perception of herself and her world role.
Though his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption, CAP still had enough credibility to run for a second term in office in 1988. Campaigning again with the AD on a nationalist platform, CAP was elected to the presidency once more but promptly reversed course and adopted more pro-US policies favourable to the International Monetary Fund. In 1992, CAP faced down a military coup orchestrated by none other than Hugo Chavez and others. Though Chavez was imprisoned, the paratrooper later ran successfully for president. In 1998, Chavez was democratically elected and split apart the corrupt two party AD-COPEI system.
Ironically, even though Chavez spent the better part of his career deploring CAP’s excesses, the former military officer carried out a very similar foreign policy predicated on opening up relations with Cuba and rhetorically challenging the US. If anything, Washington made things worse at this point by seeking to unseat Chavez, and drove Venezuela to pursue even closer links with Cuba. That, at least, is the impression one gets from reading yet another batch of sensitive US correspondence released by WikiLeaks and known as “Cablegate”.
From CAP to Chavez
Carrying on from CAP’s earlier opening in the 1970s, Chavez opened up regular commercial and military flights between Cuba and Venezuela. In a further blow, Cuba extended its influence at Venezuelan ports. Perhaps even more seriously, 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. Even as diplomatic relations improved with Cuba, daily dealings with the US Embassy in Caracas took a complete nosedive.
WikiLeaks cables also illuminate a scheme which led to the exchange of discounted Venezuelan oil for Cuban assistance in the health sector. In an echo, meanwhile of earlier press openings under CAP, Venezuela and Cuba now provide joint support for a hemispheric-wide news channel, Telesur. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in light of Sunday’s presidential election, the Americans suspected that Cuba provided key expertise to Chavez on how to expand Venezuela’s national electoral registry.
It is a fitting irony that to this day, the Posada case continues to fester and, if anything, has only served to bring Cuba and Venezuela closer together. Indeed, both countries have sought to extradite Posada, who currently resides openly in Miami. During the recent presidential campaign, Chavez’s heir Maduro even claimed that Posada was linked to a group of mercenaries who are intent on assassinating him.
Looking back upon Washington’s 40-year campaign to roll back an incipient Cuban-Venezuelan alliance, one is struck by a sense of profound political and diplomatic waste, not to mention the State Department’s skewed moral compass. From the Kissinger files to Cablegate, America’s counter-productive campaign only served to inflame public opinion and, if anything, made Venezuela even more nationalistic by the time of Chavez’s arrival on the scene in the 1990s. If Maduro wins on Sunday, as expected, Chavez’s heir apparent will probably deepen Cuba ties even further, thus demonstrating once again the complete and utter bankruptcy of US foreign policy.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.
Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff