Venezuelan Democracy Was Strangled by Cuba
Decades of infiltration helped ruin a once-prosperous nation.
The U.S. role in Venezuela has come under plenty of scrutiny in recent weeks. But far more important than the largely ineffective efforts by Washington at backing a besieged opposition has been the influence of Havana over the regimes of both former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. On April 30, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose a full embargo and high-level sanctions on Cuba over the alleged Cuban troop presence in Venezuela. “Hopefully, all Cuban soldiers will promptly and peacefully return to their island!” he tweeted. The Cuban government denies these accusations.
Yet the United States is not the only one making these claims. The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, declared last December that the Cuban government has been involved in military and intelligence activities in Venezuela by training forces and commanding operations. And accounts from former Venezuelan military officials—reported by the Washington Post—also suggest that Cubans are playing a critical role in the Venezuelan armed forces.
This February, Rocío San Miguel, the president of Control Ciudadano, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization linked to the opposition dedicated to military affairs, told the BBC that the Cubans have interfered in five key areas of the Venezuelan government: registers and notaries, identification and immigration, the Bolivarian National Police, intelligence and counterintelligence bodies, and the national armed forces. What might have seemed like a conspiracy theory a decade ago now raises few doubts.
“If oil is wealth, oil was [Fidel] Castro’s obsession.” That was the late Venezuelan journalist, diplomat, and historian Simón Alberto Consalvi’s response when asked about the former Cuban leader’s targeting of Venezuela’s wealth. The quote opens Días de Sumisión (Days of Submission), a 2018 book by the Venezuelan journalist and writer Orlando Avendaño that analyzes the history of Cuba’s interference in Venezuela’s democratic system, and how Castro opened the way for Chávez to take the presidency of the country.
Avendaño argues that the beginning of Venezuela’s gradual process of submission to Cuba didn’t start with the rise of Hugo Chávez to power. Instead, he writes, it was a very complex and sweeping long-term project orchestrated by Castro and supported by the country’s hard left that progressively corroded the Venezuelan institutions.
The initial hopes were more cooperative. Twenty-two days after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Castro traveled to Venezuela on Jan. 23, 1959, in his first official foreign visit. Castro saw in Rómulo Betancourt, Venezuela’s first elected president after the fall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, a political and economic ally who could fund his project with massive oil subsidies. Betancourt had supported Castro with arms, money, and, most importantly, political backing during the guerrilla war in Cuba. After all, they had certain things in common. Both had emerged from the intellectual left. And both wanted a drastic change in a Latin America ruled by military dictatorships for decades.
“I have felt a greater emotion upon entering Caracas than the one I experienced upon entering Havana … To these good and generous people, to whom I have given nothing and from whom we Cubans have received everything, I promise to do for other peoples what you have done for us. I promise not to consider ourselves entitled to rest in peace while there is still one Latin American man living under the opprobrium of tyranny,” Castro told 100,000 people gathered on Bolivar Avenue in Caracas.
But after 1959, Betancourt’s attitude toward Castro shifted, especially as Cuba moved closer to the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, Betancourt had been a member of the Communist Party of Costa Rica while in exile, but his views evolved toward a more democratic stance over the years. Betancourt was still against U.S. imperialism but also against Soviet imperialism. And although he had defended a revolution from the left in the past, he always thought that it also meant fair elections, something Castro wasn’t willing to accept.
The meeting between the two leaders failed, and Castro left Caracas without oil for his political project and with one more political enemy. In his 2008 book Power and Delirium, the Mexican writer and historian Enrique Krauze describes the meeting as “brief and harsh.” When Castro asked for oil, Betancourt told him Venezuela sold oil, not gifted it, and that Cuba would be no exception. The summary executions in Cuba further alienated Betancourt from his former ally. Two years later, in November 1961, Cuba and Venezuela broke off relations.
From that point on, Castro began what Avendaño, in Days of Submission, describes as the three stages of a complex process of “persistent and obsessive attempts” to control Venezuela at all cost: “The Uprising,” “The Infiltration,” and “The Consolidation.” Each used different strategies, and each came in response to the failure of the previous stage
First came the insurrection: the process of armed conflict in Venezuela, guerrilla warfare sponsored directly by Havana in the 1960s—a tactic used elsewhere in Latin America and on other continents, where Cuban advisors became a mainstay of communist insurrections.
According to Avendaño’s interviews with participants, Castro created a relationship with the main guerrilla group in the nation, called the José Leonardo Chirino Front after an 18th-century rebel. The front was led by Douglas Bravo, a former guerrilla and leader of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution. This group was just one part of the National Liberation Front, a paramilitary union that brought together all the guerrillas in Venezuela and looked to Havana for its political compass. It failed, was devastated militarily, and eventually submitted a rather opaque pacification process. That pushed Castro toward a different strategy: infiltration.
The new tactic was to introduce individuals sympathetic to the Cuban revolution into the Venezuelan armed forces so that they could develop there to expand the project, attract officers, and, in a few years, achieve the capacity for fundamental strength and support to take power. This stage culminated in the attempted coup of Feb. 4, 1992. At that time, a group of military officers commanded by, among others, Chávez took up arms against the then constitutionally appointed president, Carlos Andrés Pérez—but the rebel troops surrendered in Caracas within the first 24 hours. “We have not met our objectives … for now,” said Chávez in a televised message, surrounded by military officers as he asked his forces to lay down their arms.
The coup may have ended up being a military failure, but it became a political victory for the radical opposition groups. At the end of the 1980s, after political deterioration and economic crisis, Venezuelans were disenchanted with democracy. Pérez took office on Feb. 2, 1989, with promises of economic reform, but instead inflation struck, prices rose, and shortages began to appear all over the country. On Feb. 27, 1989, citizens took to the streets of Caracas in protest against the government but were violently repressed by the police in clashes that ended in hundreds of deaths. In this context, a large part of society came to support the idea of a coup, the army was seen as the salvation of the nation, and, after 1992, Chávez was seen as a hero.
Cuba seized this opportunity, moving into a strategy of consolidating its relationship with the Venezuelan left. At the beginning of 1994, then-Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera received Jorge Mas Canosa, an anti-Castro leader, in Miraflores palace. In response to this, Castro decided to invite Chávez (who remained a popular member of the opposition at the time) to give a lecture at the University of Havana, after his release from prison. Castro received him personally at the airport, where Chávez greeted him with rapt admiration. Almost five years after that reunion, Chávez was elected president of Venezuela.
After Chávez was elected in 1998, the relations between the two nations quickly began to narrow. The triumph of Chávez during the political and military crisis of 2002 and 2003 let Havana penetrate and gain ideological control of the national armed forces and Venezuelan oil companies. It began with economic agreements and social exchanges, mostly oil in exchange for Cuban doctors, professors, and sports coaches. That took place openly but then shifted to military personnel and intelligence forces. For Chávez, this presence in his country of Cuban intelligence forces—some of the best-trained in the continent—could help him maintain his power and political stability in case of internal or external threats. For Castro, this would eventually expand his control over Venezuelan institutions and even over Chávez’s personal life and top secrets. Over the years, the Venezuelan military leadership allowed all this interference to take place in exchange for money, privileges, and immense access to power.
During the following years, especially after Chávez’s death in 2013, Havana would continue to exert its influence over the South American nation. Cuba has become critical to keeping Maduro’s regime in place in an “oil for repression” scheme in which Havana helped the socialist leader in his power struggle with the opposition in exchange for fuel, contributing to the country’s political, social, and economic crisis today. Last year, Reuters reported that Venezuela had bought nearly $440 million worth of foreign oil and shipped it to Cuba to fulfill its commitments to Havana. The Caribbean country, along with Russia, is one of the few backers holding off the abrupt collapse of the current Venezuelan regime. The destiny of Venezuela’s democracy could lie in Cuba’s hands. A far economically and militarily stronger country has ended up ideologically conquered—and politically devastated—by a far smaller and poorer one.