Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies | University of Miami
By Dr. Eugenio Yánez, PhD in Economy, Graduate Degree in Political Science, Former Professor at the Universidad de La Habana. He is co-author of Jaque al Rey: La muerte de Fidel Castro and Secreto de Estado: Las primeras doce horas tras la muerte de Fidel Castro. He is also Editor of Cubanálisis El Think-Tank http://www.cubanalisis.com
It is clear that if Hugo Chávez sends 92,000 barrels of oil to Havana every day under highly preferential conditions, subsidized, and with unusual payment methods, such as medical and professional services in return, he would be in a position to exert influence over the Cuban regime.
This idea erroneously assumes, as do countless other analyses, that the successor regime in Havana relies heavily on its economic and political dependence on the Bolivarianism of Hugo Chávez which, in turn, would prevent it from acting independently and inevitably force Cuba to follow the continental adventure set out by Chávez.
However, both the oil and the considerable multilateral assistance that Chávez provides to the Cuban regime, respond to different circumstances than those prevalent in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador or Nicaragua, where the Chavista umbrella binds political leaders to a political ideology that Cuba is not obliged to follow.
For Chávez, the survival of the Cuban revolution, beyond the now precarious life of its founder, is a sine qua non condition. It is essential to Chavez’s aura of heir, because if the project were to fail in Havana, along with its Comandante, the possibility of expansion to Latin America and the Caribbean, under the ideological veil of XXI socialism, would be drastically diminished or perhaps even destroyed.
Furthermore, the growth of Chávez’s agenda relies on the Cuban regime. Without the highly sophisticated repressive techniques and personnel that Cubans have placed at his disposal, it would be extremely difficult for him to permanently dissolve democratic institutions in Venezuela and establish himself as “caudillo” or military dictator.
The Bolivarian Chavista movement does not rely solely on the Cuban doctors, teachers, and social workers in Venezuela. They can be considered the tip of the iceberg and, certainly, if they were expelled from the country, it would leave the Chavista government without a support mechanism to ensure its popularity throughout the nation.
Yet, it is Cuba’s security and military personnel, together with Venezuelan security and party measures and “revolutionary watch,” that have quietly developed a government that has become more dictatorial and unipersonal as it slowly crushes opposing groups and civil institutions.
Every time president Chávez announces a new initiative, targeted against democracy or the weakening of democratic institutions, whether it be through land redistribution, media closings or currency changes, the initial reaction of the Venezuelan opposition, which seems naive and disconnected, is to deny the possibility that these actions will not be sanctioned by the Venezuelan constitution or population. Yet, Chávez continues in his progression toward dictatorship.
Cuba’s collaboration with the Bolivarian regime to establish repressive mechanisms and control power is not recent nor does it bear any connection with Fidel Castro’s health; this was evident after April 2002, when Hugo Chávez was overthrown with relative ease forcing Castro to intervene and support a counter-coup that allowed Chávez to resume his presidency.
Since then, civilian Cuban leaders such as Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque have often visited Caracas. But more important were a series of discreet visits by generals Abelardo Colomé Ibarra (“Furry”), Julio Casas Regueiro, Carlos Fernández Gondín, Eduardo Delgado, and rear admiral Julio César Gandarilla, all in charge of Cuban intelligence and military security and the Ministry of the Interior. Their objective was to establish a powerful intelligence and counterintelligence network that would support Chávez.
Chávez couldn’t count totally on the loyalty of his armed forces or intelligence apparatus. Cuban operatives and advisors had to be inserted in military units. This was much more complex and difficult than it had been in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, or Mozambique.
Rather than the classic mode of assistance that the Russian KGB provided to satellite countries or the German Stassi established in third world countries, where they would only insert “advisors” in established military and intelligence units within each country, in Venezuela, along with “advisors,” Cuba established an Independent Counterintelligence Unit (ICU) that operated within the Venezuelan military intelligence apparatus but remained under the absolute control of the Cubans.
The ICU acts as “Big Brother,” keeping watch and control over Venezuelan officials and senior ranking officers that are perceived as potential threats to the regime. It also develops files of “capable” officers to be promoted perhaps to commanding posts. This miniature version of “Cuba’s Ministry of Interior” has also created a framework to recruit agents, appoint trusted individuals, and establish a select network of covert contributors.
These covert activities, which take place alongside open and “public” projects such as the creation of permanent identification documents, the “revolutionary watch” of Bolivarian groups, currency changes or continued pressure over media outlets, have done much to strengthen the regime and insure Chávez continuation in power.
In spite of an increase in the price of oil, without these discreetly placed “control” mechanisms that were developed after April 2002, the possibility of Chávez retaining power for an indefinite period of time would have been substantially reduced.
The majority of Venezuelans are unaware of the highly sophisticated repression and control mechanism that have been developed by the Cubans and Venezuelans to control the country. The Venezuelan people’s lack of experience with totalitarian systems makes it difficult for them to assess the extent of repression until it becomes too late. While the presence of doctors, teachers, and athletic trainers is obvious, the presence of Cuban military and advisors is much more discrete.
Cuban presence is also involved with Chávez’s personal safety and medical assistance. All presidential decisions, actions, and even information about his mood or health are always available to the Cuban “apparatus,” which uses them self-servingly for its objectives.
When Fidel Castro ruled Cuba, Chávez’s stability seemed guaranteed as long as he supported Castro’s ideological line and sent petroleum to Cuba. In exchange, Chávez received professional services from the Cuban regime. Yet, neither Raúl Castro nor his generals, the true leaders today, feel toward Chávez the same admiration, sympathy or loyalty.
As Cuba develops its oil production, both on and off shore, and strengthens its recently reactivated alliance with Angola, they have secured alternate energy options for the next several years while Castro’s successors carefully handle their relationship with Venezuela. As they become more confident in their ability to support themselves without relying exclusively on Venezuelan generosity, the relationship will shift from “indestructible brotherhood” to “mutually beneficial collaboration.”
There won’t necessarily be a conflict, since Cuba still relies on Venezuelan oil and other aid similar to those offered by the Soviets for many decades. But Chávez’s “socialist” experiment and his continental adventures have Cuban leadership on alert; they have all been there and are fully aware of the impracticality of his views.
Under Raúl Castro’s control, Cuba is now led with a military mentality, which does not necessarily mean an exclusively military approach. The analysis of various alternatives and models is an inherent part of that military mentality. And, before the most recent presidential elections in Venezuela, Cuban leaders made sure that, regardless of the outcome, they wouldn’t experience a disruption in petroleum deliveries. It is clear that oil does not have any ideology.
The vulnerability of a Raúl regime to Chavista support is real, but from Cuba’s point of view it is temporary. To the Cubans, Venezuelan support is not one-sided, and as long as both parties keep their ends of the bargain the relationship could be sustained for many years.
If Cuba’s leadership is able to strengthen and develop the economy, something which has been progressively happening over the last year, Cuba’s vulnerability would gradually diminish and Chávez might be able to continue screaming at the northern “empire” and at his “brothers” in the south, but never at Havana.
In the unlikely event that the Venezuelan regime would attempt to influence events in the island, by reducing or stopping oil shipments, Cuba has already in place the assets and resources to revert that situation. They did it in Angola over thirty years ago when factions from the MPLA wanted to depose Havana’s favored leader. If it were strategically indispensable for the survival of the succeeding government, Cuban mechanisms in Venezuela could support or even establish a new Bolivarian Savior.