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CUBA AND VENEZUELA: DID THE CASTRO MINNOW EAT THE CHAVEZ FISH?

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?

 

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker currently seeking asylum from inside a Moscow airport terminal, may find refuge in Venezuela. The country’s president, Nicholas Maduro, announced last week that he would offer “humanitarian asylum” to Snowden “so that in the fatherland of (Simon) Bolivar and (Hugo) Chavez, he can come and live away from the imperial North American persecution.” Several days later, Cuban leader Raul Castro echoed Maduro’s pledge, declaring that Snowden’s revelations show “that we live in a world in which the powerful think they can … trample the rights of citizens.”

 

Such concern for persecution and the rights of citizens may seem strange coming from two of the most repressive regimes in Latin America. But it speaks to the nature of the bond between Caracas and Havana: a union of the anti-American left that uses the rhetoric of anti-imperialism to justify oppression.

 

This formula has defined the alliance since it began in 1999, when Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela. A longtime champion of the socialist left, Chavez saw Fidel Castro as his mentor and hero. The two leaders formed a strategic partnership, agreeing to swap Venezuelan oil for Cuban goods and services. Havana now receives over 90,000 barrels of oil per day from Caracas in return for an army of over 40,000 Cuban medical personnel and teachers working in Venezuela. Trade between the two countries accounts for nearly a fifth of Cuba’s economy. According to Michael Shifter, President at the Inter-American Dialogue, “under Chavez’s rule, Venezuela essentially supplanted the Soviet Union as Cuba’s lifeboat.”

 

These numbers suggest that Cuba became a vassal state in exchange for doctors, but the opposite may be nearer the truth. In fact, Chavez relied heavily on Castro’s advice and clout. Cuban flags flew over Venezuelan army bases as military advisors flooded the country and coordinated Chavez’s personal security detail. According to Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Cuba exercised a “very significant role” in Venezuela, helping Chavez “institutionalize and consolidate his power.” “The balance of power,” she wrote after Chavez’s death in March, “lies squarely in Havana.”

 

The deepening interdependence between the two regimes has meant deepening persecution and suffering for their peoples. Standing together against the United States, the two countries invoked the specter of the American bogeyman to stifle free speech and root out opposition. Venezuela’s financial support spared the Castro brothers from being forced to ease their repression to attract economic assistance. Cuba’s political cover, meanwhile, legitimized Chavez’s revolutionary populism. With Venezuela’s new president promising an expansion of ties, citizens of both nations can expect Maduro and Castro to care more about the privileges of those provoking Washington than the rights of their own people.

 

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a special contributor to Freedom Collection blog. Formerly a Staff Editor at Foreign Affairs, he has published opinion pieces in numerous national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He is currently a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School.