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Desperately Seeking Proof of Cuba’s Role in Venezuela?

By: Contributor - Apr 16, 2014, 12:00 pm

EspañolWhy does the mention of Cuba’s influence in Venezuela throw otherwise reasonable people into a seeming state of incredulity?

This week, Moisés Naím (a former minister of trade and industry for Venezuela and a former executive director of the World Bank) published an article in the Financial Times arguing that the “enormous influence that Cuba has gained in Venezuela is one of the most underreported geopolitical developments of recent times.”

I shared Naím’s article on my Twitter feed, one of many articles I have posted on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Oddly, none of the articles I have shared about state repression and censorship by the Venezuelan regime has elicited as much push-back from the intellectual and media set as those articles I have shared drawing attention to Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan crisis.

An article I tweeted a few weeks ago on the Cuban connection in Venezuela prompted a series of responses (some public, some private) from people who suggested that Cuba is a “red herring” of the “extreme right wing” in Venezuela and Latin America more broadly.

In response to my tweet of Naím’s recent article, a distinguished Associated Press reporter on Latin America (seconded by a reporter from Al Jazeera) responded: “documentation/testimony, please” — ostensibly referring to the need to further substantiate Naím’s claim.

That such a distinguished reporter would ask me for documentation instead of Naím seems a bit odd. Perhaps the reporter was simply taken aback that a scholar outside of the Miami and Washington enclaves would give airtime to an argument portraying the Cuban regime in a less-than-flattering light.

As I see it, there are two main points of contention with respect to Naím’s article: one is whether Cuba does, in fact, play a critical role in Venezuela; the other is whether this role has been underreported in the media (and the latter, it seems to me, is the main point of Naím’s latest article).

With respect to Cuba’s role in Venezuela, Naím quotes Juan José Rabilero, ex-head of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). A neighborhood surveillance and intelligence-gathering network, CDRs were established to ensure “revolutionary vigilance”: “Militia battalions will be created throughout Cuba,” explained Fidel Castro on launching the CDRs in 1960. “Each man for each weapon will be selected. A structure will be given to the entire mass of militiamen so that as soon as possible our combat units will be perfectly formed and trained.”

Naím notes that Rabilero, giving a speech in the Venezuelan state of Táchira in 2007, confirmed the presence of 30,000 cederristas (members of the CDRs) in Venezuela. Surely even a skeptic will accept statements about Cuba’s role in Venezuela when these statements come from officials themselves?

Additionally, Naím reports having received information from a Latin-American minister of defense who alleges Cuba’s infamous G2 intelligence service is active in Venezuela. This corresponds with statements from former allies of ex-President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez and with secret recordings released by the Venezuelan opposition.

As I have argued previously, one can oppose or embrace Cuba’s presence in Venezuela, but the grounds for denying its existence are circumspect.

At a minimum, those alleging intervention on the part of the Cuban state in Venezuela can point to evidence (boots on the ground) and testimony (see above). In the case of the Venezuelan government’s ongoing allegations of US intervention, by contrast, the evidence is arguably less tangible (note that I am not discounting the possibility but simply recalling the demand for evidence raised in the case of Cuba).

Can one point to a history of US intervention in Latin-American affairs? Absolutely. But if all that is required to prove intervention at present is a history of past intervention, then one can similarly point to Cuba, which sought to foment regime change in Venezuela (as elsewhere) in the mid-twentieth century.

Again, one may endorse or reject foreign intervention, and it is certainly fair game to draw attention to differentials in the potential scale of intervention by distinct parties. But that is quite different from denying the existence of intervention itself.

With respect to the question of whether Cuba’s role in Venezuela has been adequately reported by the North American press, this can be empirically tested. It would mean coming up with metrics for evaluation, but this is certainly doable for anyone who has the time.

My sense — and I stand to be corrected should any sound study show otherwise — is that while mention of Cuban “assistance” in Venezuela (doctors, social workers, coaches, etc.) is fairly common in the North American media, the indirect civic-military and direct military and intelligence functions of the Cuban state in Venezuela are, as Naím argues, underreported.

One of the problems in getting this type of information to press is that totalitarian and totalitarian-trending governments have excessively illiberal communications policies. To speak of freedom-of-information (FOI) protocols in the context of Cuba and Venezuela is absurd.

These protocols serve as an imperfect but nonetheless important check on power in advanced democracies. The existence of FOIs is an implicit recognition that, under certain conditions, governments have an incentive to conceal (or, at least to not make readily available) controversial information. This applies to all governments, including those in Cuba and Venezuela.

When scholars and journalists begin to ignore this fact, we should worry.

Editor’s note: see “Venezuela’s Implications for Cuba, Options for United States” (video).