03/05/13 - Financial Times - End of Chávismo spells woe for Castros
Havana is full of whispers. Cuban officials trade on rumours of the great
man's health. Reports that the treatments are taking effect are dashed by
new ones that his days are numbered. How long can the regime last without
him at the helm?
Of course, the object of their concern isn't Fidel Castro - it's Hugo
Chávez. Although the Americas' leading leftists are ailing, the Venezuelan
president's death would be far more costly for the Cuban government than Mr
Castro's. Yes, the "Maximum Leader" can never truly be replaced, but the
tropical dictatorship has long prepared for that inevitability, passing all
real duties to his younger brother Raúl more than seven years ago.
But as the reports from Caracas become more grim - Venezuelan officials
gave a bleak bulletin on Mr Chávez's health on Monday - Havana is steeling
itself for a post-Chávez world. Because officials there know the support
that Cuba receives from the South American sultan is the lifeline that
keeps the regime afloat.
First, there is the oil: more than 100,000 barrels a day provided at
cut-rate prices. Indeed, Mr Chávez's largesse for Cuba has been so great,
it has outstripped the island's own needs. The Castro government is
believed to resell as much as 40 per cent of the oil Venezuela provides.
Then there are hundreds of co-operation projects, joint ventures, shipping
and port renovations, and enormous sums of direct investment. Fidel Castro
has valued the relationship for Cuba at about $7bn a year. Indeed,
cementing his ties to Venezuela's strongman - beginning with their first
meeting in 1994 - was Mr Castro's final masterstroke for buttressing his
regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But Mr Chávez's death will have greater economic and political ripples. A
clutch of regional states will lose their loudest spokesman. Russia will
lose one of its largest arms buyers. Iran will no longer have a partner for
its anti-American diplomatic gambits. China will not have trouble
purchasing Venezuelan oil, but its hopes for preferential access may be
questioned. After all, Mr Chávez's electoral success, particularly his
victory in October 2012, was won in part with generous assistance - often
in the form of discount washing machines and microwaves - from Beijing.
Few Venezuelans will miss the Comandante's foreign policy. They voted for
him because of his domestic initiatives and for keeping the oil tap on for
one populist project after another. Most Venezuelans, even a fair number of
Chávistas, greeted their president's foreign agenda with an eye roll. The
logic for why Venezuela should have close relations with Belarus or some
other distant central Asian regime usually escaped them.
I was present when the Venezuelan National Assembly voted to open
diplomatic relations with South Ossetia in 2010. I pressed several
legislators on the nature of Venezuela's interests in the region that had
broken away from Georgia. My questions were met with blank stares. (Of
course, the explanation was to court good will with Moscow.)
But nowhere are the stakes for what follows Mr Chávez greater than in Cuba.
The ties between the two governments are so deep that Mr Chávez sometimes
described the two countries as if they were a single entity: "Venecuba".
And it is an apt description: more than 5,000 Cuban military and political
advisers are believed to be serving in the Venezuelan government and armed
forces. Mr Chávez's government has leaned heavily on Cuba's intelligence
service, G2, for everything from keeping tabs on its political opponents to
helping ensure the president's safety. Indeed, Mr Chávez's designated
successor, Nicolás Maduro, is a Castro-approved leftist who has deep
sympathies for the Cuban revolution.
All of these bonds are Cuba's last hedge for maintaining relations with
Venezuela, and a President Maduro would not be lacking for Cuban advice
given the deep footprint Mr Castro's advisers have in Caracas.
Nevertheless, Havana knows that there is only one Hugo Chávez, and as
Chávismo crumbles so goes the last best hope for a Cuban experiment that
failed long ago.
The writer is the politics and foreign editor at Slate magazine and author
of 'The Dictator's Learning Curve'
Visible links 1. Chávez hit by 'severe' respiratory illness - FT
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