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In honor of those who are fighting for freedom in both Cuba and Venezuela, and often paying a high price for their courage, we posed the following questions to two of our special contributors: How dependent is Cuba on Venezuela and vice versa? And what does this interdependence mean for Cuban freedom? 


The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez often referred to Fidel Castro as his mentor and frequently compared his Bolivarian Revolution to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.  Within the Americas, Cuba endured the status of a pariah state after the establishment of Castro’s Provisional Government in 1959, but that isolation ended thanks to Chavez’s energetic quest to create a third force of anti-Western nations. What would eventually be called a “pink tide,” changed Cuba’s regional and international isolation, and provided vital support to its troubled economy.  The collapse of the Soviet Union created widespread shortages of petroleum in Cuba during the so-called Special Period in Time of Peace beginning in 1991, but by the end of the decade, Chavez was President of Venezuela, and Cuba became an oil-dependent client of the world’s 10th largest exporter. PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan sponsored preferential payment oil alliance of 21 Caribbean and Central American countries, including Cuba, was launched in 2005.


Chavez was a belligerent and often hostile critic of US foreign policy, and frequently used anti-imperialist rhetoric to build firewalls against US influence in Latin American regional affairs. He built active alliances with Leftist governments in Bolivia and Ecuador and with the broader South American community of republics through the establishment of The Union of South American Nations, UNASUR.  He tirelessly formed political alliances, trading blocs and regional economic agreements, and shamelessly used Venezuela’s oil resources as a political tool to convince other nations to  eschew neo-liberalism and free market capitalism.


In 2004, Venezuela and Cuba created the ALBA (the very “Chavistic” “Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America”) as the answer to the US-sponsored Free Trade Area for the Americas.  The two nations have created dozens of joint projects and established an intergovernmental commission to promote health, education and economic cooperation. In exchange for oil shipped to Cuba, Venezuela receives the assistance of an estimated 44,000 Cubans, most of them in health and medical services but a significant number are allegedly from intelligence agencies.  For many years, Cuba steadfastly maintained relationships with their most ideologically friendly regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Nicaragua, Ecuador and Guyana primarily in the form of medical assistance and training of medical students.


Despite the rhetoric of the Chavistas, the Cuba-Venezuela relationship is decidedly lopsided. It is mostly a relationship of convenience that seems decidedly biased toward Cuba. Official Cuba has worried that the post-Chavez era would see the end of this special relationship. Their anxieties were exacerbated by the close margin of victory Chavez acolyte Nicolas Maduro received, and the fact that his challenger Henrique Capriles made the alliance an election issue.  Maduro traveled to Havana to meet with the regime to reassure them of his commitment to Commandante Chavez’s vision of an enduring alliance.  The next Venezuelan presidential election could change this calculation. Since the Cuban public doesn’t enjoy the freedom to choose its leaders, any changes to the alliance will almost certainly happen only as a result of Venezuela’s voters having a change of heart. Until then, two of the most intolerant and repressive regimes in the Americas will maintain their relationship addiction with the citizenry paying the highest price.


Michael Murphy is a special contributor to the Freedom Collection blog. Michael has been active in democracy promotion and international relations for the better part of four decades in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. He is currently a consultant based in Ottawa.