Friday, October 15, 2004

Oct 15/04 - On the perverse Venezuela-Cuba relationship

PMB Comment: Andy Webb in this excellent article about the warm relations that exists between Fidel C. and Hugo C. fails to mention that bountiful and infinitely discounted oil has been paid not so much with Cuban doctors and dentists (some of whom actually do a very good job and many of whom candidly admit they do not want to go back to Cuba!) but by a never ending supply of tactics and information that the regime in Caracas needs and has used to repress internal dissent and, more importantly, to neutralize foreigners trying to meddle on behalf of democracy.

While according to a number of polls more than 80% of Venezuelan’s reject the notion of moving towards a Cuba-styled system, the government itself has adopted the organization (multitude of centralized ministries staffed by sycophants) and practices (dismantling of checks and balances and a marked predisposition for straight-faced lying) that have allowed Castro to sap the will of the most of the 11 million people who believed in him and refused – or have been unable - to leave the island paradise.

Venezuelans are accustomed to democratic ways and civil means as was clearly demonstrated by the interminable lines they were willing to endure to vote in a referendum that they suspected was rigged from the word go. But they are totally unfamiliar (after 45 years of democracy) with the clever and wicked tools of intimidation that are arriving daily from La Havana.

Over the next few months, the world will witness a methodical effort to repress and cow an entire population whose instincts allow them to anticipate events, but whose stomachs’ are not well lined to face the consequences of confronting a no-holds-barred confrontation with a brutish and oil-revenue-craze autocrat. NGOs like SUMATE, budding political parties like Primero Justicia, dissident members of the military and courageous journalists will be cornered not purely on their civic merits, but as an example for all to see. “Strike your most obvious enemy without fear and there will be no one left without fear” seems to be the imported mantra.

Those in the world who today chose to act as if all is well in Venezuela must have the courtesy to keep their mouths shut and their pens still when true democrats in Venezuela move forward to recoup our country’s legitimate right to live in peace, free from foreign pimps, and unshackled by the expedient double standards of distant commentators and bureaucrats.

As a result of the botched international observation of the recall referendum – caused, among others, by the successful castroite intimidation of both Secretary General Gaviria (at a personal level) and the OAS (through many of its Permanent representatives in Washington) – Venezuelans will have to fend off this local and regional threat on their own. PMB

Financial Times

Venezuela supplies the oil and Cuba sends the doctors: Caracas may not be the new Moscow but Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have forged strong bonds.

Andy Webb-Vidal

14 October 2004

Vilma Gonzalez, a single mother from Petare, a poor barrio of Caracas, is as thankful to Fidel Castro as she is to Hugo Chavez that her daughter Yulacey no longer cries with pain in the middle of the night.

Yulacey's broken tooth was fixed free by a Cuban dentist, one of thousands dispatched from the island to work in Venezuela's poorest neighbourhoods under a programme backed by the Chavez government.

"What Chavez, and I suppose Castro too, have done is very positive," says Ms Gonzalez. "We never had a doctor visit the barrio before and I've never had the money to take the kids to a private clinic."

The Cuban dentistry scheme is just one element of the deepening social, economic and political links between the governments of Presidents Castro and Chavez. More than 17,000 Cuban medics, plus thousands of literacy teachers, sports trainers and security advisers, are working in Venezuela - the largest overseas deployment of Cuban professionals since the 1970s Angola expedition.

For the more paranoid opponents of Mr Chavez, such activities are alarming evidence that the militaristic populist is bent on imposing the Cuban communist revolutionary blueprint on democratic Venezuela.

In contrast to the Cuban-backed insurgency that was quashed in the 1960s, today Cubans receive red-carpet treatment as they disembark at Caracas international airport at the presidential exit.

German Sanchez Otero, Cuba's ambassador to Caracas, is dubbed "el vice-presidente" by other diplomats because of his political activism. Venezuela's envoy to Havana, meanwhile, is Adan Chavez, the president's elder brother and his earliest political influence.

Cuban organisational advice is also credited with helping Mr Chavez win a recall referendum on his rule last August.

Central to the relationship is Venezuela's supply of oil to Cuba. Under the agreement, Cuba receives - at least officially - 53,000 barrels a day of petroleum products with up to 25 per cent financing, payable over 15 years at 2 per cent interest after a two-year grace period. Observers say the importance of the oil deal for Cuba cannot be underestimated. "If Castro did not have Venezuela's oil the situation here would be catastrophic," says a European diplomat in Havana.

Cuba's oil debt is now more than Dollars 1bn, but Mr Chavez recently said the free medical treatment Cuba had provided to millions of Venezuelans was worth just as much, suggesting the debt might never be collected.

Analysts say Venezuela's economic relationship is still not as important for Cuba as was the Soviet Union's during the cold war.

"To say that Venezuela has replaced the Soviet Union would imply a kind of political patronage that is not nearly as extensive as what the Cubans had in the Soviet era," says Julia Sweig, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The oil supply from Venezuela is an insurance policy for Cuba; it allows them to keep their neck above water. They still have severe energy problems on the island."

That said, some oil industry experts allege cash-strapped Cuba may be "reselling" some of that oil on to international markets for a profit. But, cheap oil aside, for Cuba's 78-year-old communist leader, Venezuela's Mr Chavez is seen as the most promising agent of leftwing political change across Latin America.

Today, Mr Castro and Mr Chavez regularly heap praise upon each other and deliver uncannily similar and long-winded anti-US and anti-neoliberal speeches.

"Castro is as obsessed with Venezuela as he was with Angola," says a Cuban professor, who recently sat through a 10-hour Castro speech to graduating Venezuelan "social work" students in Havana. "He saw the latter as key to ending apartheid (in South Africa), and sees the former as key to Latin American integration and breaking the US hold on the region." Mr Castro reportedly told the Venezuelan students that with violent revolution no longer an option, their country was the only democratic and peaceful hope for significant change in the region.

But after nearly six years in office, social development under Mr Chavez can be credited to the more disciplined efforts of the Cubans, rather than to Venezuelans. Irked at the lack of domestic "revolutionary" support for the Cuban-inspired nation-building exercise, Mr Chavez recently chided his followers for not heeding the call to accompany the Cubans operating in Venezuela.

The influence of bilateral co-operation between the two countries is being felt across the Caribbean. Venezuelan emergency relief aid to the recently hurricane-devastated areas of Haiti, Jamaica and Grenada is being dispatched and co-ordinated by the Venezuelan military - through Cuba.

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