JULY 20, 2011
In Cuba, a Prayer for Chávez
By JOSé DE CóRDOBA
CARACAS—Venezuela's ailing President Hugo Chávez says he is praying to Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the spirits of the Venezuelan savannah to help him beat his cancer.
Mr. Chávez hasn't mentioned it, but probably no one is praying harder for his health than Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba. Their ossified regime now largely depends on help from their ally in Caracas and they will do everything possible—short of an invasion—to keep Mr. Chávez or a like-minded ally in power, say U.S. officials, Venezuelan opposition leaders and analysts. Venezuela ships about 115,000 barrels per day of oil at cut rate prices to Cuba, meeting about 60% of the island's oil needs, according to a recent Brookings Institution paper, which calculates the value of the oil and other Venezuelan aid at about $5 billion a year, a major portion of Cuba's hard-currency earnings. In exchange, Cuba has sent to Venezuela tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, sports technicians, and intelligence and security experts, helping Mr. Chávez stay in power. Havana's relationship to Venezuela is akin to its economic dependence on the former Soviet Union in the 30 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which led to a 35% fall in Cuba's economy.
"To save Chávez is to conserve [Raúl's] presidential seat," wrote Yoani Sánchez, a well-known Cuban blogger and critic of the regime. "To lose him could lead to [Raúl's] own downfall."
Were Mr. Chávez to become gravely ill—he arrived in Havana Saturday to undergo chemotherapy after doctors recently removed a "baseball-sized" tumor—the Cuban government is likely to use its sway to try to shape events. Analysts say the Cuban leadership has significant clout, owing to its relationship with Mr. Chávez and top Venezuelan officials. The Cubans could also deploy their intelligence services to help one faction at the expense of another. "Cuba is the most important foreign power with a stake in Venezuela," said Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister and an analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They are not going to be passive bystanders. They will be players." There is no political relationship in the Americas quite like the tie between Fidel Castro and Mr. Chávez. Mr. Castro, who officially handed power to his younger brother Raúl in 2008, has been a mentor, spiritual and political father, savior, psychiatrist, and even bedside doctor to Mr. Chávez. In return, Mr. Chávez has bankrolled Cuba's government and given Mr. Castro occasion to dream again of a Latin America united against his bëte noire, the U.S., or as both men sometimes call it, "the empire."
At times, Mr. Chávez and top Cuban officials have talked of melding the two countries into a single confederated state—an unpopular idea among most Venezuelans. "Cuba has two presidents, Fidel and Chávez," said then Cuban vice president Carlos Lage on a visit to Caracas in 2005. Two years later, the Venezuelan president said virtually the same thing. "Deep down, we are one government," said Mr. Chávez during a visit to the island.
During his tenure, Mr. Chávez has tried to indoctrinate the Venezuelan military, bringing on thousands of advisers to replicate Cuban military doctrine, and to deal with security and intelligence issues. Cuban officers are deeply involved in intelligence and security matters in Venezuela, from the acquisition of military equipment to overall military strategy, according to people with knowledge of the matter. One source estimates the number of Cuban intelligence experts working in Venezuela at 3,000. Last year, Brig. Gen. Antonio Rivero, once the head of Venezuela's civil defense, resigned his commission because of what he said was Cuban interference and influence at all levels of the armed forces. Shortly after, he was accused of revealing state secrets and forbidden by a judge from speaking publicly about the military. On Tuesday, Jorge Giordani, Venezuela's finance minister, said there was no doubt Mr. Chávez would run for re-election in 2012. Nonetheless, if Mr. Chávez dies or is too ill to run, his movement, divided by money, ambition, ideology and economic interest, will have a difficult time fielding a candidate who satisfies all factions, analysts say. The Cubans could push for Adan Chávez, Mr. Chávez's elder brother, now a state governor and a former ambassador to Cuba. "They will pick a horse, or more than one horse," Mr. Naim said.
"A negotiation will involve the Cubans," said Alexander Luzardo, an ex-senator and former Chávez supporter. "We will need to talk to them."
Mr. Chávez's relationship with Mr. Castro dates to 1994 when the Cuban dictator invited Mr. Chávez, then an obscure cashiered lieutenant colonel and failed coup plotter recently released from prison, to Havana. Mr. Chávez was given the red-carpet treatment, and even gave a speech to students at the University of Havana. "Fidel saw that in Chávez he had a diamond in the rough," said a former Chávez cabinet minister. "He turned on the full force of his charm and started to work on Chávez."The relationship blossomed when Mr. Chávez, riding a wave of revulsion against corruption, won the presidency in a landslide victory in 1998. Mr. Castro's blessing of Mr. Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" endowed the tank commander with revolutionary legitimacy. In return, Mr. Chávez's billions in oil money and his admiration of the Cuban leader have afforded Mr. Castro a chance to extend his revolutionary philosophy, at least by proxy. In 2000, Mr. Chávez took Mr. Castro on a trip to his dusty hometown of Sabaneta in the southern plains state of Barinas. There, Mr. Castro suggested that in 100 years pilgrims would flock to visit Mr. Chávez' humble house, said Luis Miquilena, a former Venezuelan Interior Minister who was on the trip. Mr. Chávez was overcome by Mr. Castro's flattery, Mr. Miquilena said.
A glimpse of how seriously Havana takes the relationship, and the risks should Mr. Chávez leave the stage, was on full display in 2002, when Mr. Chávez was ousted briefly by army generals. Mr. Castro assumed a major role in Mr. Chávez's return to power, as he helped mobilize support among Venezuelan generals and world leaders. Mr. Chávez' return was a lucky break for the Cuban regime. In the 48 hours that Mr. Chávez was out of power, thousands of Venezuelans who were angry over Havana's outsized role in their government surrounded the Cuban embassy in Caracas, demanding the new Venezuelan government cut off ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, Venezuelan officials mulled ending oil shipments to the island. Two years later, Mr. Castro sent thousands of doctors to man Mr. Chávez' neighborhood health program, known as Barrio Adentro,a move that helped revive Mr. Chávez' popularity.
More recently, Cuba last year sent Ramiro Valdez, the regime's legendary secret policeman, on an extended visit to Venezuela, ostensibly to advise Mr. Chávez on Venezuela's spluttering electrical grid. Another leading Cuban official has been a top adviser on Venezuelan agricultural and food issues. Last month, Mr. Chávez credited Mr. Castro, in almost religious terms, with being the first in realizing the Venezuelan leader was ill during his recent trip to Havana."We were...with Fidel, that giant who has surmounted time and place," said Mr. Chávez when he announced for the first time that he had cancer. "He interrogated me almost as a doctor, and I confessed, almost as a patient."
Write to José de Córdoba at firstname.lastname@example.org