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 Venezuela did
BY FRANCISCO TORO
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
hospital—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 Fidel Castro'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, Chile'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, Chavez got invites from high-tech medical centers
in Brazil and in Spain, 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
president 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 expression 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 rationing. 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-food chain resulted in food 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
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 journalist and co-author of Blogging the
Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era.