One of the greatest ironies of the late strongman Hugo Chavez’s rule was that even as he attempted to personify Venezuelan nationalism, he was quietly outsourcing more and more of the country’s sovereignty to the Castro brothers in Cuba. Today, with conditions in the country spiraling after April’s tainted election to guarantee the continuation of Chavismo, Cuba’s flagrant interference in Venezuelan affairs has become downright obscene.
As Venezuela’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria, put it recently: “Venezuela is an occupied country. The Venezuelan regime is a puppet controlled by the Cubans. It is no longer Cuban tutelage; it is control.”
His comments come after a series of events that began less than two weeks after the election in April that saw Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, win by just 1 percentage point over challenger Henrique Capriles, prompting charges of electoral fraud by the opposition. In the midst of that controversy, Mr. Maduro quickly decamped to Cuba for a five-hour meeting with Fidel Castro, seeking advice on how to thwart the reinvigorated opposition and to promise more Venezuelan handouts for Havana, which already amounted to about 130,000 barrels of oil a day.
Since then, a stream of high-ranking Venezuelan officials have been regularly traveling to Cuba. This past weekend, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly and widely seen as Mr. Maduro’s chief rival within Chavismo, was summoned to Havana for a meeting with Mr. Castro, who no doubt made him a deal he couldn’t refuse to unite behind Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Cabello’s trip to Cuba followed another egregious example of Cuban interference in Venezuelan affairs. Last month, the opposition released an audiotape of a briefing by a well-known Chavez acolyte to a top Cuban intelligence agent with a direct line to the Castros. In it, vitriolic radio broadcaster Mario Silva aired all manner of dirty laundry within Chavismo, including the bitter political infighting between Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello following Chavez’s death and the over-the-top corruption. Mr. Silva also complained to the Cuban agent about Mr. Maduro’s equivocation toward adopting Castro’s advice to “get rid of these bourgeois elections because [voters] make mistakes [and] here, with elections the way they are, we could be struck down. They could knock the revolution down.” Mr. Silva soon fled the country and is now residing in Cuba for “health reasons.”
Particularly sensitive is Cuban infiltration of the Venezuelan military. Earlier this year, retired Gen. Antonio Rivero, also a former Chavez ally, was arrested after he publicly denounced the presence of thousands of Cuban military and security personnel assigned to every level of the bureaucracy, up to and including the office of the minister of defense. When Mr. Maduro recently accused Mr. Capriles of “treason” for touring Latin American capitals protesting the tainted election, Mr. Capriles tweeted to his countrymen, “Treason is allowing the Cuban government to infiltrate our armed forces and their officers give orders to ours,” and “The great traitor is Maduro! Every day he gives away our national resources to his bosses, the Castro brothers.”
Indeed, since the death of Chavez in March, the “Cubanization” of Venezuela has only accelerated. From physical assaulting opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly, which occurred on April 30, to the ongoing militarization of Venezuelan society through the imposition of militant brigades patterned after Cuba’s notorious neighborhood-watch committees, to the recent imposition of Cuban-style rationing on certain products such as toilet paper that have disappeared from stores shelves, the hapless Maduro government is left to push nothing but Cuban-style policies.
For the mendicant Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, they have no choice but to increase their control to shore up Mr. Maduro’s faltering government. The spiraling political and socio-economic crises in Venezuela are rightly perceived by them as an existential threat, with opposition leader Mr. Capriles promising to end the billions in Venezuelan handouts to their bankrupt regime and expelling some 60,000 Cubans operating in the country.
Yet the biggest challenge that remains for the Castros and the dwindling numbers of hard-core Chavistas are those millions of Venezuelan voters who expect to have their own choice in the matter. Even under Chavez, the brazenness of Cuban intervention never achieved this degree. That is going to offend a great number of Venezuelans who consider themselves nationalists first and political adherents second. To sacrifice their sovereignty to become merely a Cuban satrapy may just be the bridge too far for Chavismo, and may just be the spark that ignites a real Venezuelan revolution.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.