The Cubanization of Venezuela began a long time ago, but it took another large step in early February, when Cuban general Ramiro Valdés arrived in Caracas to serve as a government consultant. Valdés, 77, has been one of the most brutal enforcers of the Castro regime, beginning in the 1960s when he was responsible for crushing popular protests over energy-use restrictions. He established Castro’s ruthless G2 intelligence service and is currently number three in the Cuban hierarchy.
According to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Valdés and his retinue are there to help the South American country solve its dire electricity crisis. Cuba has been experiencing major electricity problems for 50 years, so it’s unclear just what assistance its advisers would be able to provide on energy policy. (Writing in the Ven-ezuelan newspaper El Universal, journalist Nelson Bocaranda noted that the Cubans have actually damaged several Venezuelan power generators.)
And Valdés is no energy expert. He is an expert in managing the repressive organs of a police state. He’s been sent to Venezuela to help Chávez suppress the popular revolt and further consolidate his autocracy. It’s part of a broad Cuban effort to prop up the Bolivarian revolution and ensure that Chávez keeps providing the Communist island with generous shipments of cheap oil.
Havana has good reason to be worried about Venezuelan stability. Recent months have seen massive anti-Chávez demonstrations, with tens of thousands of angry Venezuelans filling the streets to complain about, not just electricity shortages, but also water rationing, high crime rates, runaway inflation, corruption, and the erosion of democracy. Venezuela is suffering from a lengthy drought, which isn’t Chávez’s fault. But the rest is. As Venezuelan exile Gustavo Coronel has written, “For the last ten years the infrastructure generating both hydroelectric and thermal electricity in the country has been badly neglected, in favor of Chávez’s demagogic programs of handouts to poor Venezuelans and to friendly politicians in the region.”
Anti-Chávez protestors have been wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a blunt message: “3 Strikes: Blackouts, Water Rationing and Crime. Chávez, You’ve Struck Out!” On January 9, Chávez announced that he was devaluing the bolívar (Venezuela’s national currency) and vowed to use the military to prevent price increases. Ven-ezuela already has the highest inflation rate in Latin America—Morgan Stanley projects it will rise to 45 percent this year—and its economy is crumbling under the weight of Chávez’s “21st-century socialism.”
A few weeks ago, several former Chávistas (referring to themselves as the “Constitutional Axis”) published a letter that enumerated these problems, noted that the Venezuelan president has failed to address them, and called on him to resign. The letter denounced Chávez as “autocratic” and “totalitarian” and argued that he “has neither moral nor material authority to rule the country, since he can not meet people’s demands satisfactorily.” One of the signatories, Raúl Isaías Baduel, was Venezuelan defense minister from 2004 to 2007. He has been in prison since 2009 as punishment for opposing Chávez. Two others, Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta, helped Chávez spearhead an unsuccessful military coup in the early 1990s.
The letter lamented that Ven-ezuelan institutions have been “distorted by the incursion of outside elements.” They meant the Communist apparatchiks sent from Cuba. According to the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, about 30,000 Cubans hold posts in dozens of ministries, state bodies, and public enterprises. Cuban officials now occupy senior positions in the Venezuelan armed forces and secret police. The Economist reported that Cubans “are helping to run Ven-ezuela’s ports, telecommunications, police training, the issuing of identity documents and the business registry.” In January, Venezuelan vice president Ramón Carrizales and his wife, Yubirí Ortega, the environmental minister, both resigned in protest at the increasing Cubanization of the military.
Cuba’s Communist rulers—including 83-year-old Fidel Castro, who is still very much in control—have been unnerved by the growing unrest in Venezuela and the possibility that the Chávez regime could be headed for collapse. The Cuban government is utterly dependent on Venezuelan oil subsidies. Chávez currently sends Cuba more than 36 million barrels of subsidized oil a year—roughly half of all that Cuba consumes. The oil subsidies include de facto payments for the tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuela. Havana’s strong support for Chávez is driven far more by economic necessity than leftist ideology. Without Chávez, the weak Cuban economy would collapse and the Castro regime along with it.
Preserving the Bolivarian strongman is thus a top priority for Havana, which is why the Castro brothers have been flooding Venezuela with highly accomplished practitioners of repression and censorship. Chávez is relying on them to fortify his revolution. With each passing day, the two countries become more and more interdependent, and Venezuela gets more and more Cubanized.
Does the Chávez-Castro relationship affect American foreign policy? As the U.S. intelligence community notes in its 2010 threat assessment (which Dennis Blair presented to Congress in early February), the Ven-ezuelan and Cuban governments—along with their allies in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua—“are likely to oppose nearly every U.S. policy initiative in the region, including the expansion of free trade, counterdrug and counterterrorism cooperation, military training, and security initiatives, and even U.S. assistance programs.”
But even if Valdés and his henchmen help stabilize Venezuela in the short term, they can’t undo the heavy consequences of Bolivarian socialism. Surveys show that Chávez is increasingly unpopular; he will grow even more so if the electricity and water shortages persist. Venezuela’s infrastructure is crumbling, as is its public health system. Crime has reached unimaginably high levels—especially in Caracas—and inflation is having a devastating impact on the economy.
Yet Chávez aggressively plows forward, aiming to create a Cuban-style dictatorship. And what is the response from Latin America’s democratic leaders? Silence. Rather than stand up for democracy, most have stayed quiet and sought to accommodate a dangerous autocrat. In that sense, they bear a share of responsibility for what is happening in Venezuela.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.