By Eric Driggs - a Research Associate at the Cuba Transition Project, at the University of Miami.
There have been numerous assurances by Venezuelan government officials that the policies being implemented are a brand of democratic populism unique to the country and to the vision of its leader, Hugo Chavez. However, there are a number of striking similarities - in methods of civilian control, redistribution efforts and measures to ensure internal security - that merit mention and raise questions about the uniqueness of current policies in Venezuela.
This Fact sheet is not a complete analysis of events and policies in Venezuela. While there may be other similarities as well as differences between Cuba and Venezuela, a select few similarities are described.
All media outlets, including access to the Internet, are state-controlled. Public discontent or criticism of the state is strictly prohibited under the Cuban Penal Code, which criminalizes dissent.
Article 103 outlines the crime of “enemy propaganda,” stating that the distribution of any verbal or written information that is construed as anti-government can be penalized with one to eight years in prison. If the mass media is used, the penalty increases to anywhere from seven to fifteen years in prison (1).
Article 144 defines the crime of “disrespect,” outlawing any verbal or written statements which offend a public official, establishing a penalty of three months to a year of imprisonment and/or fine. The prison term increases to one to three years if the “disrespect” is towards a head of state or senior official (2).
The Venezuelan government controls seven television channels, two cable networks, 28 local community TV channels, 200 local radio stations, 40 regional and 4 national newspapers (3). The government recently did not renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, the longest running television station in the country, which was privately owned and was seen by the government as a mouthpiece for opposition viewpoints.
The Venezuelan state does not completely control the media as in Cuba, a good number of media outlets are still in private hands and access to the Internet is not as controlled. However, this does not mean that government influence is nonexistent; in fact there are signs that control is tightening. The Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law gives the government the legal authority to oblige private media outlets to simultaneously broadcast Chavez’ speeches in entirety. There have been 1,542 of these forced simulcasts since 1999, comprising 922 hours of airtime (4). The Law of Partial Reform of the Penal Code was enacted in 2005 and criminalizes criticism of the President and high government officials. Article 147 states that “stated or written disrespect of the President of the Republic….will be punished with six to thirty months in prison. The sentence will be lengthened by a third if the offense takes place in public.”(5) Similar punishments exist for disrespecting other government officials.
In May of 1959, Fidel Castro issued the Agrarian Reform Law and confiscated private estates over 1,000 acres. In 1963, the Cuban government seized all land holdings larger than 167 acres under the Second Agrarian Reform Law. With the implementation of this law, the total expropriated land had reached approximately 13.6 million acres (6) . Most of this land was converted to state farms. Little land was distributed to individual farmers.
Despite unusually fertile soil, Cuba has struggled with food production, and has recently increased food imports: the Cuban government presently imports $1.6 billion dollars in food, which is an increase of $600 million over the last four years. In 2006, $570.8 million of food products were purchased from the United States (7).
Venezuela has recently begun a land reform program, confiscating and redistributing large tracts of private land. According to government figures, 3.4 million acres have been confiscated and 15,000 families given title (8). While squatters are given plots of land to cultivate, this policy – coupled with price ceilings on food items that are pegged below production costs – is leading to shortages in basic food items such as milk and meat (9). Food demand has risen 30 percent in Venezuela over the last two years while production has risen only five percent.
CDRs/ Bolivarian Circles
The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were established in Cuba in 1960, with the expressed purpose of creating a system of grassroots vigilance to extend government surveillance to the neighborhood level.
The CDRs collect detailed personal information on Cuban citizens – school and work history, contact with foreigners, attendance at political rallies, “suspicious” or “anti-revolutionary” behavior – which is shared with the Ministry of Interior, the internal security apparatus of the state.
Circulos Bolivarianos, or Bolivarian Circles, were first created in 2001 by President Hugo Chavez as small, neighborhood groups of individuals dedicated to revolutionary principles and goals.
The members who must have a “solid political and ideological formation,” are charged with creating revolutionary cadres, and are sworn to defend the Bolivarian revolution; these efforts have constitutional support (10).
While these groups have had significant participation in social work, it is not offered to all; there is evidence that these organizations help identify political opponents, who are then denied benefits under government aid programs (11).
There have been concerns that these groups may be operating as grassroots militias, using armed intimidation and/or resistance against government opponents (12).
“The enemy will face our combatants in each square meter of our valleys and mountains, on each street, in each block, in each house of our cities”-Fidel Castro (13)
Cuba introduced the concept of “the War of all People” into its military doctrine in the early 1980s, and today it stands as one of the pillars of Cuban national defense. This strategy is based on tactics of asymmetrical warfare used in Vietnam, integrating civilians into the active defense of the country.
The organization of this effort is centralized in the Territorial Defense System (TDS), which divides the country into over 1,400 “defense zones” manned by civilians with rudimentary military training. The Cuban Armed Forces (FAR) trains Militias of Territorial Troops (MTTs) to bolster the manpower that could be brought to bear in a defensive situation, and are under the jurisdiction of the FAR. Presently, the Institute of International Strategic Studies estimates the troop strength of these militias at approximately one million strong (14).
“...in every town, on every mountain, in every ravine, local resistance…”-Hugo Chavez (15)
President Chavez has implemented a number of changes to the structure and doctrine of the Venezuelan military. By expanding the reserves and giving civilians rudimentary military training, the Venezuelan government is swelling the ranks of personnel available to repel any threat to the stability of the government. The Territorial Guard, a body of civilians specifically trained in guerilla tactics, has been introduced to repel an internal uprising or invasion using asymmetrical warfare.
The latest version of the Organic Law of the National Armed Forces (LOFAN) was signed by Chavez into law in 2005; this statute governs the mission and organization of the military, and establishes the Territorial Guard as a body charged with “the preparation and maintenance of the populace organized for operations of local resistance against any internal and/or external aggression.”(16) LOFAN also mandates the division of Venezuela into “military zone,” which the Territorial Guard are tasked to defend (17).
With this legal foundation, the militarization of civilians for counterinsurgency has become an integral part of defense doctrine in Venezuela; arming the population by any means necessary has become a point of national security. Vice Admiral Luis Cabrera Aguirre, the retired military official supervising civilian training, made this point clear: “we hope that [civilians] make their own weapons, we don’t care what they are, as long as they serve to the harm the enemy.”(18) According to the Venezuelan government, approximately two million civilians have signed up for military training (19).
Fidel Castro publicly envisioned a socialist society in Cuba that rescinded the use of money, reverting to the barter system as the engine of the economy:
“Money is the intermediary between what man produces and what he consumes” emphasized Castro…“we shall suppress the vile intermediary which is money”(20).
Hugo Chavez is presently promoting a program to establish bartering systems in rural areas across Venezuela. These frameworks would use “community monetary systems” which can only be used in local marketplaces and which would lose value over time.
“[Using the] barter system ...we all win. Do you know what that’s called? Socialism ...Capitalism exploits the majority to enrich the minority.”(21)
It is well known that the political alliance between Venezuela and Cuba is strong, as are the personal ties between Chavez and Castro. Yet the government in Caracas claims that it is promoting a move towards homegrown socialism that is inspired by the Cuban experience, but with a Venezuelan face. A closer look at the policies implemented in Venezuela to consolidate power and enroll the populace in internal intelligence collection and armed defense, policies entrenched in Cuba for some time, may undermine this claim.
(1)Cuban Penal Code, Article 103. http://www.gacetaoficial.cub/codigo_penal.htm
(2)Cuban Penal Code, Article 144. http://www.gacetaoficial.cub/codigo_penal.htm
(3)“Venezuela on way to ‘Media Hegemony,’ Rosales says,” Theresa Bradley and Alex Kennedy, May 30, 2007 http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601086&sid=anZk3Eh7PGoc&refer=latin_america
(4)“Closure of Radio Caracas Television Paves Way for Media Hegemony,” Reporters Without Borders Mission Report, June 5, 2007. http://www.rsf.org/IMG/doc/Rapport_RCTV_eng.doc
(5)Law of Partial Reform of the Penal Code, Article 147, Gaceta Oficial No.5768, April 13, 2005 http://www.asambleanacional.gov.ve/ns2/leyes.asp?id=559
(6)Gutelman, Michel, L’Agriculture socialisse a Cuba, Chapter 2, Francois Maspero, 1967. http://www.ditext.com/gutelman/cuba.html
(7)“Agreements for more than $100 million in food purchases,” Gilda Fariñas Rodríguez, Granma Internacional, May 31, 2007. http://www.granma.cu/ingles/2007/mayo/juev31/agreements-100-million-purchases.html
(8)“Chávez keeping his promise to redistribute land,” Simon Romero, International Herald Tribune, May 16, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/05/17/america/17venezuela.php
(9)“Farms are latest targets in Venezuelan upheaval,” José de Córdoba, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2007. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB117934540971705299.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
(10)Official Venezuelan Government website: http://portal.gobiernoenlinea.ve/cartelera/CirculosBolivarianos.html#5
(11)“Move Over Che: Chavez is New Icon of Radical Chic,” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2006. Also see “Dependent Civil Society: The Círculos Bolivarianos in Venezuela,” Kirk Hawkins, David Hansen, Latin American Research Review, Volume 41, No. 1, 2006.
(12)“Chávez accused of fostering militia links,” Greg Morsbach, BBC News, June 12, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/2038827.stm
(13)Fidel Castro Speech on the 30th Anniversary of the Attack on the Moncada Garrison, July 26, 1983.
(14)Institute for International Strategic Studies, The Military Balance: 2005-2006.
(15)Alo Presidente, Program #234, September 25, 2005.
(16)Ley Organica de las Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales, Chapter III, Article 30, Gaceta Oficial No. 38280, September 26, 2005.
(18)“Caracas prepara guerra de guerillas,” Greg Morsbach, BBC Mundo, March 6, 2006.
(20)Fidel Castro, Speech to Third ANAP Congress, May 19, 1967.
(21)“La Parte Roja: El Mercado Comunitario del Trueque,” Promotional Video, Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo de la Pequeña y Mediana Industria (INAPYMI).