News and opinions on the situation in Venezuela
The Not So Odd Couple: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro
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On April 29, 2005 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro met in Havana to renew their call for a hemispheric trade pact, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), as an alternative to the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The leaders’ initiative is merely the latest in a series of joint actions aimed at strengthening economic and political ties between the two leftist, anti-U.S. regimes.
Chávez and Castro often work in tandem on a number of fronts, providing each other with critical political support while opposing Washington’s increasingly overbearing deportment in the hemisphere. In 2004, critics claimed that Chávez turned a blind eye to Cuba’s alleged human rights abuses and voted against investigating these violations by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission. Both leaders also have vehemently denounced U.S.-mandated free market principles, specifically the FTAA, as being hostile to Latin America’s economic well-being. Chávez and Castro also infuriated the U.S. by loudly expressing their disapproval of the war in Iraq.
Chávez’s Reasons for Cooperation
Chávez who came to consider himself a “new socialist,” won the vast support of Venezuela’s poor in his 1998 electoral victory and soon embarked on an ambitious campaign to implement social reforms, most notably to eradicate illiteracy. From early in his presidency it was clear that Chávez’s first priority was to improve the lot of Venezuela’s economically disadvantaged. After his convincing 2000 reelection victory, Chávez was even more emboldened to aggressively attack his country’s social failings – he further initiated a series of reforms, known as “missions,” to make medical care, for example, more readily accessible to Venezuela’s poor and continued his campaign against illiteracy and to better feed Venezuelans living below the poverty line.
However, Venezuela lacked both the medical and educational skills and professionals necessary to guarantee the success of his reform program. However, Castro’s Cuba has been remarkably successful in providing quality education and healthcare to all Cubans (Cuba has a near 100 percent literacy rate and universal health care). Thus, given that Chávez and Castro are both ardent socialists, it made eminent sense for Chávez to appeal to Castro for the necessary expertise to carry out his reform package on the basis of a barter arrangement. In 2000, Chávez and Castro reached an agreement in which Castro supplied Chávez with healthcare experts and teachers to assist underprivileged Venezuelan neighborhoods in exchange for oil at preferential prices. Chávez’s collaboration with Cuba represented a bold move to improve the life of the average Venezuelan.
Chávez also had a political motivation for cozying up to Castro. Chávez’s “new socialist” revolution, or as he calls it Bolivarism, named after South American revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, promotes state intervention in the economy yet tolerates private business, and mobilizes society through his revolutionary party, but allows political opposition the necessary vehicles to proselytize as well. The goal of this medley of policies is to make Venezuela as self-sufficient as possible and to make it, in Chávez’s words, a “small major power.”
Chávez sees Cuba as, in a certain respect, a role model for his Bolivarian dream. He stated that in 1999: Venezuela should head “toward the same sea as the Cuban people […] a sea of happiness, true social justice and peace.” Chávez wants to partially emulate the success of Castro’s Cuba – a highly literate, relatively healthy society with a strong sense of revolutionary spirit and fundamental patriotism though plagued by low domestic living standards due to a derelict economy. Accordingly, he has welcomed Cuba’s assistance in helping to transform Venezuela into a more self-reliant society. Chávez has also replicated many of Castro’s societal ideas, creating Bolivarian Youth Brigades and Bolivarian Circles, which are similar to Castro’s Young Pioneers and Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, in order to build support among the poor for Bolivarianism. Chávez’s open admiration for Castro’s perceived success in transforming Cuba into a socialist society has influenced the Venezuelan president to see him as being able to help Venezuela achieve his vision of a Bolivarian state, and has admired the Cuban leader’s accomplishments, with relatively few resources and in spite of unremitting U.S. hostility
Chávez’s Bolivarian vision, much like Bolívar’s own, is continentalist in nature and emphasizes the creation of a unified South America that can operate as an independent power in the hemisphere and the world; i.e. free to thwart Washington’s goals for a dependent Latin America. Castro and Chávez’s shared opposition to the U.S.-domination of the global political system partially explains Chávez’s pursuit of a close relationship with Castro after he came to power in 1998.
Chávez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric in the late 1990s at first isolated him from other Latin American leaders who openly supported U.S. interests and policies. With the recent emergence of the New Left in Latin America – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and with prospects that Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia will soon join the list of left-leaning presidents, – Chávez’s vision of a Latin American coalition of nations may be near. However, any such coalition will probably not be as unified as Chávez would prefer, but certainly it will be a powerful force that could somewhat act as an antidote or counterweight, or even as a possible alternative in the future to U.S. power being unqualifiedly projected on the hemisphere and the international system.
Castro’s Reasons for Cooperation
As Chávez was drawn to Cuba, Castro was also politically motivated to pursue a close working relationship with Venezuela. For ten years, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R and as the U.S. came to dominate the hemisphere’s political agenda through heavily sold free trade agreements and economic reforms in the 1990s, aimed at coronating the private sector in the hemisphere, Castro’s Cuba was the target of Washington’s political isolation not only in the hemisphere but in the wider global community as well. The 1998 presidential victory of his close friend Chávez and the subsequent strengthening of relations between the two nations, along with dramatic shifts in attitude throughout the hemisphere, allowed Castro to end his political isolation and triumphantly emerge as a credible hemispheric leader.
Castro’s “Real Socialism” vs. Chávez’s “New Socialism”
The U.S. Reaction
U.S. policymakers, and in particular, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are concerned that Chávez and Castro’s partnership could be the beginning of a new direction for the burgeoning New Left coalition in Latin America that is hostile to fundamental U.S. security interests in the region and Washington’s trade priorities for the hemisphere. During her recent Latin American trip, Rice expressed her concerns about Chávez, pointedly terming him a “destabilizing” influence in the region. Chávez, concerned that Washington’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward him was the lead up to a possible invasion of Venezuela, threatened the U.S. with a “100-year war” if his country was ever invaded. However, the two nations are so economically dependent on each other – Venezuela sends 60 percent of all of its oil exports to the U.S. and the U.S. receives 15 percent of all its oil imports from Venezuela – that neither nation is likely to seriously consider outright military confrontation with the other. In fact, Chávez recently said of the U.S.: “Okay, we have differences, but let’s talk about them.”
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Hampden Macbeth.
June 21, 2005
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