Soft power: The influence of Cuba over the Venezuelan regime
Last month, when the Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, was briefly detained by Maduro’s intelligence agents less than 48 hours after proclaiming himself the new interim President of the country, many saw on that a familiar tactic of political harassment, this time, it looked like an operation carried out in the style of another government, more precisely, as the Cuban regime.
For many years, Venezuelan citizens and political figures have been protesting with both verbal and direct manifestations what they suspected to be a deeply political interference of the Cuban government on their country’s internal affairs.
In the midst of the continuing escalating demonstrations all over Venezuela due to the deep humanitarian crisis and the many human rights violations committed by Nicolás Maduro’s regime, the influence of the Cuban government on the Venezuelan military, intelligence forces, and governmental politics stand out once again to the public eye.
In November of last year, the Casla Institute presented a report that registered at least 190 cases of torture committed by governmental forces only in 2018. This institute assures to have evidence of at least eleven cases in which the torturers, described by the citizens, had a Cuban accent. During a speech at a conference on human rights violations that took place in December of the same year, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, denounced the participation of the Cuban intelligence on tortures and repression acts 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 government of Cuba "has had a completely improper interference" in five key areas of the Venezuelan government: registers and notaries; identification and immigration; organization of the Bolivarian National Police; participation in intelligence and counterintelligence bodies; and his presence within the National Armed Forces. According to the BBC, the expert assures that Cuba directly intervened in the restructuring of the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB), as well as in the drafting of the five reforms to their Organic Law.
"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 who carry out permanent works in military installations and who, in times of crisis, are clearly willing to assume their combatants' hats. That's another of the functions they perform," explains Rocío San Miguel.
For decades, the Venezuelan aid has been fundamentally crucial to prevent a complete collapse in the weak, central-planned Cuban economy. Maintaining a government in Caracas that keeps strong ties between both nations and the sustentation of such aid is an essential objective of the Castro regime. Decades of experience, knowledge, and the long list of allies have allowed Cuba to operate internationally with a tremendous efficacy and in a way that is almost imperceptible, when necessary.
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 of citizens fled the island on rafts.
When Hugo Chávez attempted a coup-d’état in Venezuela in 1992, Castro was among many of the global leaders that denounced it, in that period, Chávez did not show any signs of support for the Marxist-Leninist ideology that Cuba defended, nor did he claim to be a sympathizer of the authoritarian regimes of the left in the region. But as soon as Chávez was released from prison two years later, he was invited to Havana, at that moment the alliance of interests between the two countries began to grow. Chávez discovered in Castro a ‘living hero’ that had all the tools to give political legitimacy to his revolution. And Castro found in that military man the perfect ally in its efforts to stabilize 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 subsidized oil, what made Cuba receives a ‘premium’ access to the largest oil reserves on the planet, in exchange for sending doctors, teachers, intelligence advisers, and military advisers. During his 14 years in office, with the 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, whether the courts or the legislature. He also disposed of Venezuela's oil revenues as he wished. Today there’s no doubt that letting the Cubans it was one of the strongest expressions of that absolute power.
But in 2011 Chávez was diagnosed with cancer. This changed the rules of the game for both nations. The reason he opted to search for a cure in Cuba were obvious, that 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 with the progression of his illness. On his final television appearance, with his health situation worsening, Chávez told its Venezuelan followers to make Maduro, then vice president, his successor. Over the next months, Venezuela was governed ‘remotely’. Several decrees bearing Chávez’s signature emanated from Havana, but no one seemed to really know about his situation. On March 5, 2013, Chávez death was finally announced, and there were only two certain things: that Maduro was going to be Venezuela's new leader; and that he would bear the inheritance of Venezuela's strong ties to the Castro profound influence in the nation.
Unequivocally, despite the current disastrous situation of Venezuela, this ‘incestuous’ Cuban-Venezuelan relationship has been maintained. And Maduro’s regime has been increasing his embrace of a survival strategy straight out of the Castro playbook: to keep the charge, they amplify their reliance on censorship and repression, without having in count how many lives of their own citizens they destroy in the process.
Jorge Carasco - FTN Editorial Team Latin America