News and Facts about Cuba

What Fidel Taught Hugo Cuba defined Chávez’s career as much as Venezuela did

What Fidel Taught Hugo Cuba defined Chávez's career as much as did


Hugo Chávez died today in Venezuela at the age of 58, but his battle

with a never-specified form of cancer was waged largely in a Cuban

—a telling detail, as Cuba loomed just as large in his political

imagination as his native country.

It's a point that my gringo friends up north always struggle with. The

Cuban Revolution's immense influence on the region has been constantly

underestimated and misunderstood from day one. It's only a slight

exaggeration to suggest that everything of note that's happened south of

the Rio Grande since 1959 has been an attempt either to emulate,

prevent, or transcend the Cuban experience. Chávez will be remembered as

the most successful of 's emulators, the man who breathed

new life into the old revolutionary dream.

Starting in the 1960s, guerrilla movements throughout the hemisphere

tried to replicate the Sierra Maestra rebels' road to power, to no

avail. In the '70s, 's Salvador Allende tried the electoral route,

but he didn't have a clear majority. In the '80s, Nicaragua's

Sandinistas had the majority and rode it to power, but took over a state

too bankrupt to implement the social reforms they'd always championed.

Chávez had all three—power, votes, and money—plus charisma to boot. His

was the last, best shot at reinventing Caribbean Communism for the 21st


At the root of the extraordinarily close alliance Chávez built with Cuba

was a deep, paternal bond between two men. A fiercely independent

figure, the messianic Chávez was never seen to kowtow to anyone. But

there were special rules for Fidel.

Chávez's extraordinary devotion sprung from Castro's status as the

mythical Hero-Founder of Latin America's post-war hard left. Chávez

loved to brag of his frequent, spur-of-the-moment trips to Havana to

seek Castro counsel. When he was diagnosed with the cancer that

ultimately killed him, got invites from high-tech medical centers

in Brazil and in , but it was never in doubt where he would seek

treatment. Chávez trusted Fidel, literally, with his life.

There's no comparable relationship between two leaders in contemporary

world politics, and it had its political consequences—especially for Chávez.

In a Cold War throwback, his government welcomed tens of thousands of

Cuban doctors, trainers, and "advisors"—including, por supuesto, an

unknowable number of spies—to Venezuela. And tens of billions of

petrodollars flowed in the opposite direction, a resource stream that

propped up the last bastion of totalitarianism in the Western Hemisphere

long past its sell-by date. For Fidel, who had had his eyes on

Venezuela's oil riches since the 1960s, Chávez's election was an

unbelievable stroke of luck.

Much has been written about the way Venezuela stepped in to fill the

fiscal and strategic void the collapse of the Soviet Union left in Cuba,

but the reality is much stranger than that. As the unquestionably senior

member of their Cold War alliance, the Soviets treated Cuba as just

another satellite state; Fidel's subjugation to a cold war superpower

was always something of an embarrassment to him.

In the Caracas-Havana axis, by contrast, the paymaster doubled up as the

vassal. Venezuela effectively wrote a fat petrocheck month after month

for the privilege of being tutelaged by a poorer, weaker foreign power.

The extent of this reverse colonization was startling. Cuban flags

eventually came to flutter above Venezuelan military bases and

Venezuelans witnessed the surreal spectacle of a democratically elected

telling them that Venezuela and Cuba share "a single

government" and that Venezuela "has two presidents." Cuban military

advisors kept watch over Venezuela's entire security apparatus, and had

exclusive control over Chávez's personal security detail. Through most

of his 20-month battle with cancer, the Castros had better information

about the president's condition than even his inner circle back home,

and they maneuvered successfully to ensure a pro-Havana diehard, Nicolás

Maduro, won the tough battle for succession.

Chávez imported more than just personnel and advice; he imported the

Cuban Revolution's eschatology virtually whole. Fidel's vision of

revolution as a kind of cosmic morality play pitting unalloyed socialist

"good" in an unending death struggle against the ravages of "evil"

American imperialism became the guiding principle of Venezuela's revolution.

The use and abuse of anti-imperialist rhetoric as a mechanism for

consolidating authoritarian control over society was the most valuable

lesson Chávez learned from Fidel. A superheated brand of unthinking

anti-Americanism became the all-purpose excuse for any and every

authoritarian excess, stigmatizing any form of protests and casting a

dark pall over any of discontent or dissent. The technique's

infinite versatility proved its central attraction: You could blame

shadowy gringo infiltrator for neighborhood protests over chronic power

shortages just as easily as you could silence whistleblowers of

government corruption by casting them as CIA fifth columns.

In Cuba, considering the island's history as a target for American

imperialist meddling, anti-imperialism—however wantonly abused—rested on

a bed of historic verisimilitude. But in Venezuela, a country with no

history of direct American imperial aggression, this borrowed bit of

rhetorical posturing served only to underline chavismo's derivative

status, its ideology a kind of fidelista hand-me-down lacking even the

self-awareness to realize it was decades out of date by the time it was


Where Chávez was able to transcend the Cuban model, it was largely due

to the advantages of life at the receiving end of an unprecedented

petrodollar flood. By some estimates, Venezuela sold over $1 trillion

worth of oil during his tenure, and so his was government by

hyperconsumption, not . The petroboom allowed Chávez to

substitute the checkbook for the gulag; marginalizing his opponents via

popular spending programs rather than rounding them up and throwing them

in jail. Rather than declaring all out-war on business, he co-opted

them. Rather than abolish civil society, he created a parallel civil

society, complete with pro-government unions, universities, radio

stations and community councils. Such enhancements were tried before by

left-wing populists in Latin America, but always failed because they ran

out of money.

Chávez avoided this pitfall thanks to the greatest of his innovations:

He consciously avoided a complete break with the U.S. that Castro

provoked in 1960. Instead, he railed against gringo imperialism all

morning, then spent all afternoon selling those same gringos oil. The

irony is that this, his most important innovation, will be the one least

memorialized by his admirers. It was a gloriously incoherent posture,

but one that fit the square peg of revolutionary zeal into the round

hole of an import-led petropopulism.

Ironically, though, in its dependence on oil rents, the Chávez model

quietly undermined its own claim to represent a new alternative to

dreaded Washington-sponsored neoliberalism. After all, if Venezuela

could afford to botch the nationalization of its own steel industry, it

was because there were always petrodollars around to import the steel

that local industry was no longer producing. And if nationalizations up

and down the agro- chain resulted in shortages, money could

always be found to import the balance. As the Venezuelan State-Owned

Enterprise sector grew, it looked more and more like the USSR's—with a

single profit-generating industry cross-subsidizing a bewildering array

of loss-making concerns. Chavenomics, as a development model, boiled

down to little beyond extracting oil, selling it at high prices, and

using the proceeds to paper over the rest of the system's cracks. How

such a model is supposed to be relevant to countries that don't happen

to float on top of hundreds of billions of barrels in oil reserves is

anybody's guess.

Still and all, petropopulism's attractions were all too clear for

Chávez. Those deep, oil-lined pockets allowed Chávez a luxury Fidel

could only dream of: being able to hold a long string of

not-overtly-rigged elections without ever seriously endangering his grip

on power. It used to be that you could have either unchecked personal

power or electoral legitimacy, but the petrodollar flood allowed Chávez

to have both.

Elected autocracy may sound like an oxymoron, but this is exactly what

the Venezuelan synthesis of the Cuban experience yielded: a system that

washed away the sins of its own aggressive contempt for dissidence and

dissent through continual recourse to the ballot box. What Hugo Chávez

built was, in other words, a flawless autocracy.

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan and co-author of Blogging the

Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us
Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Google PlusCheck Our Feed
March 2013
« Dec   Apr »
  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31
Donate for Servers
We run various sites in defense of human rights and need support to pay for more powerful servers. Thank you.
Cubaverdad on Twitter
Tweets by @Cubaverdad