July 7, 2011
by Jaime Daremblum
For the past decade, Hugo Chávez has been supporting the Castro regime by sending millions of barrels of cheap oil to Cuba. These energy subsidies have helped the Communist government maintain power amid a terrible economic crisis. In return for its petroleum shipments, Venezuela has received an influx of Cuban doctors. And last month, as the entire world is now aware, Chávez himself received cancer treatments in Havana before returning to Caracas earlier this week.
But the strategic relationship between Cuba and Venezuela goes well beyond oil and health care. In addition to sending doctors, the Castros have also dispatched senior military personnel to help train and manage Venezuelan security forces. Back in February 2010, for example, General Ramiro Valdés (an architect of Cuba's notorious G2 spy agency) came to Venezuela, supposedly to work as an "energy consultant," but really to assist Chávez in the consolidation of a Cuban-style dictatorship. Indeed, Chávez has actively sought to "Cubanize" the Venezuelan military, police, and intelligence services.
A few weeks before Valdés arrived in Caracas, Venezuelan vice president Ramón Carrizales and his wife, Yubirí Ortega, the environmental minister, resigned from the government in protest at the Cubanization of the armed forces. Shortly thereafter, a group of prominent ex-Chávistas — including Gen. Raúl Baduel (defense minister from 2004 to 2007) and two other former military officers (Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta) who helped Chávez launch his failed 1992 coup attempt — published a letter urging the "autocratic" and "totalitarian" Venezuelan leader to resign from office. Among its many complaints, their letter said that Venezuelan institutions had been "distorted by the incursion of outside elements" (read: Cubans).
Cubans "are helping to run Venezuela's ports, telecommunications, police training, the issuing of identity documents and the business registry," the Economist reported around this same time (February 2010). "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." Meanwhile, "Trade unions, particularly in the oil and construction industries, have complained of ill-treatment by the Cubans."
The tensions fostered by Cubanization will only get worse if Chávez dies or is sidelined for an extended period of time. Venezuelans of all stripes resent the presence of so many Cuban officials in their midst. The longer the Cubans stay, the greater the chance of serious friction in the military and other institutions. A rupture in the army could lead to violent instability.
Cuba isn't the only source of conflict within the military. Senior members of the Venezuelan armed forces — including Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the country's "general in chief," and Gen. Hugo Carvajal, director of military intelligence — are heavily involved in the global drug trade. In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that cocaine traffic through Venezuela had increased "significantly."
Between 2006 and 2008, Venezuela was the departure point for more than half of all maritime drug shipments from South America to Europe, according to the United Nations. The Wall Street Journal reports that imprisoned Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled, who was captured in Colombia last August and extradited to Venezuela in May, has admitted to having "as many as 40 Venezuelan generals and top officials on his payroll to provide security and distribution, among other things." One can only assume that these generals and officials will seek to protect their drug profits and resist sharing or giving up the spoils.
Besides fighting internally over narcotrafficking and Cuban influence, the military may also clash with the tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitaries that Chávez has cultivated as his personal security force. These militia fighters represent the Venezuelan equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the lethally effective organization that crushed massive pro-democracy demonstrations in June 2009. If Venezuelans rose up the way Iranians did two years ago, the armed forces might refuse to slaughter civilians in the street. But what about the militias, who report directly to Chávez? What if they conducted a bloody crackdown? Would the military intervene to stop them? Or would it allow a Tiananmen-style massacre to take place?
These questions bring us back to Cuba. Would Havana really allow the Chávez regime to collapse? After all, the Communist-ruled island is critically dependent on cheap Venezuelan oil. Without those energy subsidies, the Castro government might well implode. The Cuban military advisers and intelligence personnel sent to Venezuela have been tasked with fortifying Chávez and preserving Bolivarian socialism. If the Caracas regime were faced with large-scale street protests, à la Tehran in 2009 and Cairo in 2011, would the Cubans push for a crackdown? If so, would Venezuelan military officials be able to prevent it?
In so many ways, the Cubanization of Venezuela has contributed to greater instability and uncertainty, while increasing the likelihood of violence. Chávez has essentially allowed his country to be colonized by Communist apparatchiks, whose government has a major stake in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat. This has created yet another obstacle to restoring Venezuelan democracy. Indeed, before it can escape the nightmare of Chavismo and return to liberal, constitutional government, the South American country must first de-Cubanize.
(Read this article in Spanish here.)
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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