Feb 13/10 | On The Treasonous Plan of a Puppet and his Cuban Puppeteers
Feb 11th 2010 | CARACAS | From The Economist print edition
IN A small fishing village on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela stands a plinth. Unveiled by government officials in 2006, it pays homage to the Cuban guerrillas sent by Fidel Castro in the 1960s to help subvert Venezuela’s then recently restored democracy. Almost entirely bereft of popular support, the guerrilla campaign flopped. But four decades later, and after a decade of rule by Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s communist regime seems finally to have achieved its goal of invading oil-rich Venezuela—this time without firing a shot.
Earlier this month Ramiro Valdés, a veteran revolutionary who ranks number three in Cuba’s ruling hierarchy and was twice its interior minister, arrived in Caracas, apparently for a long stay. Officially, Mr Valdés has come to head a commission set up by Mr Chávez to resolve Venezuela’s acute electricity shortage. But he lacks expertise in this field, and Cuba is famous for 12-hour blackouts. Some members of Venezuela’s opposition reckon that Mr Valdés, whose responsibilities at home include policing Cubans’ access to the internet, has come to help Mr Chávez step up repression ahead of a legislative election in September. Others believe he was sent to assess the gravity of the situation facing the Castro brothers’ most important ally (Cuba depends on Mr Chávez for subsidised oil). He has been seen in meetings with Venezuelan military commanders.
Although by far the most senior, Mr Valdés is only one among many Cubans who have been deployed by Mr Chávez under bilateral agreements that took shape in 2003. As well as thousands of doctors staffing a community-health programme, they include people who are helping to run Venezuela’s ports, telecommunications, police training, the issuing of identity documents and the business registry.
In 2005 Venezuela’s government gave Cuba a contract to modernise its identity-card system. Since then, Cuban officials have been spotted in agencies such as immigration and passport control. A group of Cubans who recently fled Venezuela told a newspaper in Miami that they had bribed a Cuban official working in passport control at Caracas airport.
In some ministries, such as health and agriculture, Cuban advisers appear to wield more power than Venezuelan officials. The health ministry is often unable to provide statistics—on primary health-care or epidemiology for instance—because the information is sent back to Havana instead. Mr Chávez seemed to acknowledge this last year when, by his own account, he learned that thousands of primary health-care posts had been shut down only when Mr Castro told him so.
Coffee-growers complain that in meetings with the government it is Bárbara Castillo, a former Cuban trade minister, who calls the shots. Ms Castillo, who was formally seconded to Venezuela four years ago, refuses requests for interviews.
Trade unions, particularly in the oil and construction industries, have complained of ill-treatment by the Cubans. No unions are allowed on Cuban-run building sites. In September last year Froilán Barrios of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, which opposes the government, said that “oil and petrochemicals are completely penetrated by Cuban G2,” the Castros’ fearsomely efficient intelligence service. Oil workers planning a strike said they had been threatened by Cuban officials.
The new national police force and the army have both adopted policies inspired by Cuba. The chief adviser to the national police-training academy is a Cuban, and Venezuela’s defence doctrine is based on Cuba’s “war of all the people”. Foreign officials who watch Venezuela closely say that Cuban agents occupy key posts in Venezuela’s military intelligence agency, but these claims are impossible to verify.
Mr Chávez portrays Cuban help as socialist solidarity in the struggle against “the empire”, as he calls the United States. When he was visiting Cuba in 2005 Fidel Castro said publicly to him that their two countries were “a single nation”. “With one flag,” added Mr Chávez, to which Mr Castro replied, “We are Venecubans.” These views are not shared by Venezuelans. In a recent poll 85% of respondents said they did not want their country to become like Cuba. Perhaps Mr Valdés will include that in his assessment.