19 February 2019

Interference in Venezuela comes not from America, but Cuba

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When Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido was briefly detained by Nicolas Maduro’s intelligence agents last month, many observers saw an operation bearing the hallmarks of another repressive Latin American regime — Cuba

This is no coincidence — for many years, Venezuelan citizens and political figures have protested against what they suspected was Cuban interference in their country’s domestic political affairs.

In the midst of the economic and humanitarian crisis, and the human rights violations committed by the Maduro regime, Cuba’s influence on Venezuela’s military, intelligence and politicians is once more under scrutiny.

In November of last year, the Casla Institute — a Czech thinktank focusing on Latin America, produced a report documenting at least 190 cases of torture committed by governmental forces in 2018 alone. This institute claims to have evidence of at least 11 cases in which the torturers had a Cuban accent.

At a conference on human rights violations in December, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, denounced Cuba’s intelligence services for committing torture and other acts of repression in Venezuela.

“It is estimated that there are some 46,000 Cubans in Venezuela,” Almagro stated. “An occupation force that teaches how to torture and repress, that performs intelligence, civil identification, and migration services.”

According to Rocío San Miguel, the President of Control Ciudadano, a Venezuelan NGO dedicated to military affairs, the Cuban government “has had a completely improper interference” in five key areas: registers and notaries; identification and immigration; the Bolivarian National Police; intelligence and counterintelligence bodies and the National Armed Forces. San Miguel also says Cuba directly intervened in the restructuring of the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB), as well as in the drafting of five key pieces of military legislation.

“We don’t have figures, but we do have testimonies of military personnel who described the Cuban presence at different times and in different spaces within the FANB. Both in meetings for the design of the strategic-military concept and in the presence of civilians permanently stationed in military installations and who, in times of crisis, are clearly willing to take on the role of combatants – that’s another of the functions they perform,” explains San Miguel.

For decades, Venezuelan aid has been crucial to staving off a complete collapse in the weak, centrally planned Cuban economy. Maintaining a government in Caracas that keeps strong ties between both nations has therefore long been an essential objective of the Castro regime. Decades of experience, knowledge, and a long list of allies have allowed Cuba to operate internationally in a way that is both tremendously effective and, where necessary, almost imperceptible.

In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba founded itself in urgent need of a search for new economic and political allies. The economy on the socialist island crumbled without the aid of its main Soviet partners. The government called that era “the Special Period”, and (among many other things) Cubans endured wartime food rations and daily blackouts of electricity, a situation that pushed thousands to flee the islands on makeshift rafts.

When Hugo Chávez attempted a coup d’état in 1992, Fidel Castro was among the global leaders that denounced it. The key difference was that at that time, Chávez did not show any signs of support for the Marxist-Leninist ideology that Cuba defended, nor did he claim to sympathise with the region’s left-wing dictatorships.

But as soon as Chávez was released from prison two years later, he was invited to Havana. It was at that moment that the alliance between the two countries began to grow. Chávez discovered in Castro a “living hero” who had all the tools to give political legitimacy to his revolution. And Castro found in Chavez a military man who promised to be the perfect ally in his efforts to stabilise the Cuban economy.

In the early 2000s, Castro and Chávez announced several deals that pulled Cuba from the depths of its catastrophic economic crisis with generous shipments of subsidised oil. It meant giving Cuba “premium” access to the largest oil reserves on the planet, in exchange for sending doctors, teachers, intelligence operatives and military advisers.

During his 14 years in office, with Castro’s support Chávez enjoyed absolute power thanks to the control he exercised over each of the institutions that could have imposed limits or demanded transparency, be it the courts or the legislature. He also disposed of Venezuela’s oil revenues as he wished. Effectively giving oil away to Cuba was one of the clearest expressions of Chavez’s autocratic approach to government.

However, when Chavez was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, the rules of the game changed for both nations. That he sought treatment in Cuba was no great surprise — it was the only place he trusted not only to treat him but also to have absolute discretion about his critical condition. His dependence on Havana deepened as his illness progressed.

On his final televised appearance, as his health deteriorated, Chávez told Venezuelans that his then vice president, Nicolas Maduro, should succeed him as president. Over the next few months, Venezuela was governed “remotely”. Several decrees bearing Chávez’s signature emanated from Havana, but no one seemed to really know what was going on with the commander-in-chief. When Chavez was pronounced dead on March 5, 2013, only two things were certain: that Maduro was going to be Venezuela’s new leader and that he would continue to work closely with the Castro regime.

There is no doubt that despite the current disastrous situation, the Cuban-Venezuelan relationship has remained strong. Indeed, Maduro’s regime has latterly embraced a survival strategy straight out of the Castro playbook: to maintain their hold on power, they amplify their reliance on censorship and repression. And much like their Cuban allies, they do so without ever counting the human cost of the lives they are destroying in the process.

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Jorge C Carrasco is a Cuban freelance journalist.