SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Cuba’s communist government has deployed thousands of technical and military advisers to Venezuela to bolster the regime of leftist President Hugo Chavez, as that country faces energy shortages and increased repression against opposition political leaders.
A senior Cuban security official and former interior minister, Gen. Ramiro Valdez, arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, in February to take charge of a Cuban government mission that over the past several years has grown to an estimated 40,000 advisers and aid workers, including a large contingent of Cuban military personnel.
The advisers include intelligence and security officers, political advisers and medical personnel.
According to Venezuelan military analysts and U.S. intelligence reports, Venezuelan officials have said that the Cubans’ main task is to help resolve the energy crisis, which has resulted in rolling blackouts in parts of the country.
“They have great expertise in matters of saving electricity and electrical efficiency,” Venezuelan Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez said of the Cuban personnel.
Mr. Chavez’s opponents fear the Cuban advisers are behind the repressive measures taken by the government to secure a victory for Mr. Chavez in congressional elections scheduled for September.
“Cuba’s expertise is in control, and that’s what Chavez needs right now, so that’s what the Cubans are providing,” said Michael Shifter, director of Inter-American Dialogue, a policy center in Washington. “The Venezuelan government is worried about losing control.”
Several prominent opposition leaders have been arrested over the past month. They include Gov. Alvarez Paz of the oil-rich state of Zulia and Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the last surviving independent newschannel, Globovision.
Mr. Chavez has openly praised the thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers who manage his health and educational programs. But he has remained largely silent about Cuban security and military advisers who virtually run key sections of his government and armed forces.
“There are indications that agents of the Cuban G-2 [military intelligence] are operating openly at all the main military installations, principally the Ministry of Defense, the strategic operations command, the joint chiefs of staff headquarters, command centers of the army, navy, air force and national guard, as well as the military intelligence directorate” and the internal security service, said retired Brig. Gen. Francisco Uson, who served as defense planning director and briefly held the post of finance minister in Mr. Chavez’s government.
A U.S. intelligence official said that Cuban intelligence officers also have been planted throughout Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry and that Venezuelan ambassadors posted overseas have been identified as Cuban intelligence officers.
Intelligence officers in Colombia, who have kept a close eye on Venezuela because of guerrilla activity at the borders and constant threats from Mr. Chavez to wage war on Colombia’s U.S.-backed government, have said that Cuba has established a “parallel chain of command” within the military.
A Colombian security analyst who recently visited Venezuela told The Washington Times that Cuban advisers have been operating at the “tactical unit level.”
“Their recommendations are generally supported by the high command and considered orders,” the analyst said.
This specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Cuban advisers decide on unit deployments and recommend promotions through a newly established system that allows sergeants to assume the rank of colonel by “technical merit.”
The Cubans also report any suspected disloyalty among officers to senior advisers at Venezuela’s command centers. Gen. Uson said that Cubans serving with battalions usually are disguised as “sporting instructors.”
“There is much ill feeling about the presence of these agents, but my comrades in arms generally show genuflection and passivity towards these individuals,” Gen. Uson said.
Cuban teams also maintain and operate much of the $4 billion worth of advanced military hardware that Venezuela recently acquired from Russia, including radar-guided anti-aircraft systems, Su-30 multipurpose fighter jets, Kilo-class submarines, Mi-24 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, as well as tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Mr. Chavez’s close relationship with Cuba was evident as far back as the mid-1990s, when Fidel Castro invited him for a hero’s welcome in Havana following Mr. Chavez’s imprisonment after he led a 1992 failed coup against the government of President Carlos Andres Perez.
Venezuelan merchant marine officers say that during a 2002 oil strike against Mr. Chavez, Cuban advisers commandeered port facilities and oil tankers to safeguard vital fuel cargo bound for Cuba. Mr. Castro’s small island nation relies on Venezuela for heavily subsidized oil and food aid.
After Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro signed a series of bilateral agreements in 2003, thousands more Cubans poured into Venezuela to manage a range of government services, including telecommunications, the issuing of identity documents, police training and the business registry.
A national guard officer, Brig. Gen. Marco Ferreira, who headed a key immigration department, told The Times that he quit his job at the time because he was “tired of Cubans looking over my shoulder.”
Venezuela’s armed forces were restructured along Cuban’s totalitarian model through constitutional changes introduced in 2005, when Mr. Chavez also announced the formation of a National Bolivarian Militia to operate under his direct political control.
Gen. Raul Baduel resigned as defense minister in 2007 as a result of the changes and became a leading critic of Mr. Chavez until he was imprisoned last year.
Analysts say the militia has fallen short of Mr. Chavez’s stated goal of mobilizing 1 million armed members by 2010. Its strength is estimated at about 300,000 men and women, who are highly indoctrinated and receive all aspects of infantry training, including the use of 120 mm mortars, according to intelligence reports.
Colombia intelligence sources say militia leaders run local “communal councils” that are in charge of distributing gasoline supplies to many towns and communities, mainly in rural areas. Militia units also manage security at major oil energy installations.
There are some indications that Cuba’s military model is being applied in other Latin American nations that have been influenced by Mr. Chavez. Bolivian President Evo Morales recently ordered his army to adopt the Cuban military slogan of “Homeland or death; we will triumph.”