Last Sunday, Raul Castro set out the essence of Cuban policy toward the increasingly volatile situation in Venezuela. Speaking to the Cuban Labor Confederation, he described it as “a complex crisis,” indicating considerable alarm in Havana about how Cuba’s vital economic and security interests might be affected.
Memories of the outcomes of three earlier crises in Caribbean and Latin-American countries tightly allied with Cuba must be worrying Raul and others in the leadership.
- In September 1973 Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile in a savage military coup as the Marxist upheaval that he led for three years in a partnership with Fidel Castro ended. Allende’s death in the coup was a devastating blow to Cuban prestige and a significant personal loss for Castro. Allende was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a submachine gun Fidel had given him when he committed suicide in the presidential residence.
- Ten years later in tiny Grenada, Cuban ally Maurice Bishop was the victim of a surprise coup that installed the more radical Cord-Austin regime in power. But Bishop was executed by a firing squad, along with a number of his supporters, giving rise to chaos and a US military intervention supported by several other Caribbean states that restored democratic rule. Bishop had been particularly close to Fidel Castro, an adoring acolyte. His death was another serious blow to Cuban aspirations for leadership among third world and developing nations.
- In 1990, the closest of all the Cuban allied regimes was turned out of office in democratic elections. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, tied inextricably to Cuba since the 1960s, had lost. Of the three regional disasters for Cuban influence, this was the most punishing for Havana.
But none of these calamities for Cuba compares to the enormity of the possible loss of Venezuela if the Bolivarian revolution loses power as a result of the massive demonstrations and unrest that have buffeted the country for two weeks now. Cuba receives enormous financial and other forms of assistance from Caracas, amounting recently to as much as US$13 billion annually, according to respected economists.
It is not surprising then, that Raul expressed full support for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, praising his “intelligence and firmness in the way he has handled” the crisis. Raul gave assurances of Cuba’s “full support for the Bolivarian and Chavista revolution and compañero Nicolas Maduro.”
Siding unmistakably with the brutal tactics of the Venezuelan security forces, Raul condemned “energetically” the “violent incidents unleashed by fascist groups” in Venezuela, “causing deaths and scores of injuries.” He implied that the United States was supporting the anti-government demonstrators and might even consider intervening.
It is not surprising that Cuba is unequivocally backing its man in Caracas. Maduro, after all, was the Cuban regime’s choice to succeed Hugo Chávez after his death a year ago. Maduro appeared at the time to be the best candidate, well known to Cuban intelligence and diplomatic officers, and considered to be a thoroughly reliable ally. The likely concerns they had about Maduro’s abilities and qualifications were put aside.
But how long will Havana support him? Maduro’s leadership has come under increasing pressure as protests have intensified. He has made a number of laughable blunders. The governor of Táchira state criticized Maduro’s handling of demonstrations in his state, a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. More importantly, the governor for years has been a close ally of Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, considered Maduro’s principal rival in the Bolivarian leadership.
Raul Castro and his numerous emissaries in Venezuela are unlikely to stay indefinitely behind Maduro if his standing sinks to anything close to an untenable situation. The Cuban stake in receiving continued Venezuelan largesse is so great, that Raul will likely do whatever seems necessary to keep the spigot open. If that meant moving with Venezuelan military and other allies to dump the president under some pretext, he would be the victim of cold Cuban calculation.
But such a decision would be fraught with risks. Would Cabello, or some other anointed successor, prove to be as reliable an ally? Would a Cuban-engineered coup arouse even greater opposition in the streets, and possibly in the Venezuelan military? Anecdotal reports of mounting popular animosity toward the large Cuban presence in Venezuela are being heard more often.
If opposition protests continue, and adverse trends persist, will the Bolivarian revolution survive? If not, the damage to the Cuban economy will be devastating — though probably not as terrible as when Soviet assistance was terminated. How then would Raul Castro’s government deal with such a crippling crisis?
Brian Latell is the author of Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. A former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, he is now a senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. This article is from the Latell Report, from the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.