April 10, 2009
Cuba and Venezuela have often crossed paths. In the early 1960s, Havana abetted armed groups against democratically elected Venezuelan governments. Meddling in Venezuela's affairs, in part, determined Cuba's 1962 suspension from the Organization of American States. Caracas and Havana stood at irreconcilable odds afterward.
By the early 1970s, Cuba's foreign policy made a U-turn. With the failure of guerrillas, Havana largely embraced diplomacy. It was a fortuitous pivot that led Cuba down the path of a world-class foreign policy.
Under Rafael Caldera (1969-1974), Venezuela also changed. Left-wing parties, which had supported Havana's meddling, were legalized. Caldera likewise opened a dialogue with the English-speaking Caribbean that had looked askance at Caracas's hostility toward Havana.
In 1975, Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1979) normalized relations with Cuba. Embassies were opened and trade resumed. Thanks to a Caracas-Moscow agreement, Cuba imported Venezuelan oil while the former Soviet Union supplied Caracas' clients in Europe. Though subsequent presidents strayed from Perez's track, Venezuela never restored a policy of confrontation.
As president again from 1989-93, Perez again improved relations with Cuba. In 1992, little-known colonel Hugo Chavez staged a failed coup against Perez that landed him in jail. Havana quickly congratulated Perez in surviving the coup. When freed in '94, however, Chavez traveled to Havana where Fidel Castro gave him a hero's welcome.
Carlos A. Romero, a professor at Venezuela's Universidad Central, wrote a handy overview of Cuba-Venezuela relations in the last 50 years. Chavez's election was a godsend for Cuba, which at last had a true ally in the Western Hemisphere. Romero analyzes Venezuelan-Cuban ties in two stages: between 1999 and 2004 when the bilateral relationship consolidated and since 2004 when the two countries crafted a regional strategy.
Their decade-long closeness has been mutually beneficial. Since 2005, Venezuela sends Cuba a daily lifeline of 100,000 barrels of oil at subsidized prices. Bilateral trade grew from $388 million in 1998 to $7.1 billion in 2007. Havana in 2007 provided Caracas with the services of 39,000 Cubans, including 31,000 health professionals. The remaining 8,000 presumably include political and security advisors instrumental in Chavez's blueprint for gutting democracy from within. Appearances to the contrary, Venezuela is also dependent on Cuba.
Founded in 2004, ALBA—the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America - is the cornerstone of the joint regional strategy to counter free-trade agreements with the United States. Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Dominica and, most recently, Honduras have joined ALBA. Still, Nicaragua and Honduras are members of the CAFTA-DR, the Central America-Dominican Republic-United States FTA. In 2007, Chavez added the need for a regional security strategy built on:
-Excluding the United States from any regional defense council
-Diversifying military purchases and technical assistance
-Forging closer ties with China, Russia, Iran and other U.S. rivals.
There might be a lot less than meets the eye in this strategy. In a recent visit to China, Chavez ranted about U.S. imperialism, which Beijing promptly disowned. Russia is readily seeking a renewed military presence in the region, which Cuba hasn't embraced.
If Iran responds to the Obama administration's offer to dialogue, Venezuela may be left with a short-stick strategy.
What awaits the decade-old alliance between Cuba and Venezuela?
-One scenario points the relationship continuing on its present terms. Yet, oil prices are cutting into Venezuela's largess in the region, even if Cuba might be the last tosuffer.
-A second scenario entails a certain distance between the two countries if Cuba under Raul Castro opens the economy and eases tensions with the United States. Rumors abound about the Cuban Armed Forces mistrust of their Venezuelan colleagues.
-Changed domestic circumstances in Cuba or Venezuela is a third scenario. While Havana and Caracas can't fathom a future without revolution, history is often like an old mole who surfaces unannounced, for good or ill. I'm glad; otherwise, writing columns would be boring.
Marifeli Perez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a professor at Florida International University and a columnist for the Miami Herald.