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Implications of Chavez' illness for Cuba and the United States

 

Jaime Suchlicki, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami

    

 

A nervous, frail and thin Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela recently after cancer surgery in Cuba. Days later, on July 17, he returned to Cuba for extensive treatment, highlighting the gravity of his cancer. The dangerous illness and sudden surgery of the Venezuelan leader has raised speculation and concern in his country as well as in Cuba.

 

If Chavez’ continuous control of Venezuela begins to crumble, who would succeed him? Will the military intervene in the political process? Will Venezuelans unite around an opposition leader to defeat an ailing Chavez or an appointed successor?

 

Although it may be too early to tell with any certainty, Chavez may be unable to run in the next presidential elections in 2012. This could lead to a rift in the Chavista ranks, providing an opportunity for an opposition victory. This requires a united opposition around one candidate, not a likely event. A succession to Chavez’ brother is possible but may increase dissatisfaction among Chavistas. Increased instability within the government or among dissatisfied Venezuelans may lead to violence and a military intervention, a scenario favored by Cuba given its significant dependence on Venezuela.

 

Impact on Cuba

 

For the Castro brothers the continuity of the Chavista regime, with Chavez, his brother or a friendly successor, is critical for Cuba’s stability. Venezuela continues to provide the island with 100,000 barrels of petroleum per day on subsidized terms, significant other investments and remains as Cuba’s main ally in Latin America.

 

If Venezuela would fall into the hands of the opposition or would enter a chaotic period, Chavista largess may come to an end. Cuba’s few industries, the transportation and electric systems will suffer as they did after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. With less electricity and harsher times, Cubans may become more restless and be willing to risk more riots and demonstrations in a darkened country.

 

Yet the crisis may not be as deep as the one in the 1990s. General Raul Castro has visited and worked out petroleum arrangements with Angola, Russia, Brazil and Iran. The latter in particular, as well as others, may want to come to Cuba’s rescue, albeit temporarily and on different terms than the Venezuelans. The island today is also not as dependant on Venezuela as it was on the Soviet Union in the pre-1990 period. Cuba has diversified its trading partners and has forged political and economic alliances with a variety of countries, especially Iran, China, Russia, Brazil and others. Finally, Cuba’s exports are not as tied as they were in the Soviet era to sugar when the sweetener was the island’s major export. Cuba today sells nickel, rum, cigars, pharmaceuticals and has a well developed tourist industry and enjoys large scale remittances from Cuban exiles. This is not to say that the Cubans will not suffer. Yet predicting an economic collapse would be a great stretch.

 

General Castro may be hoping for time. Offshore oil exploration in Cuba’s northern coast, if successful, may yield in the next 3-5 years enough petroleum to replace Venezuelan bonanza. Cuba’s security and military personnel in Caracas may go to great lengths to guarantee a continuation of the Chavista regime. A more open Cuban intervention, however, may further antagonize the Venezuelans and prove counterproductive.

 

The U.S. factor

 

Since the initial years of the Cuban revolution, no regime in Latin America has challenged the national security interests of the United States like Venezuela. Chavez’ close relationship with Iran, his support for Iranian nuclear ambitions and his involvement in the affairs of neighboring countries all pose a major challenge to the United States.

 

For the past eight years, U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Chavez for his policies and activities. That policy is no longer viable or prudent. The United States needs to develop policies that undermine the Chavez regime, organize and unify the opposition and accelerate the end of his rule. Covert operations to strengthen opposition groups and civil societies are urgently needed. Vigilance and denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Chavez’ meddling in Colombia and elsewhere are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.

 

While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective, Chavez’s illness, growing discontent, economic difficulties and possible rifts in the Chavista regime may offer significant opportunities. The long-term consolidation of Chavista power in Venezuela may present a greater threat than the one posed in the 1960s by the Castro regime. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela has significant oil wealth and is a large country that borders on several South American neighbors. Chavez’s alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries, and his support for terrorist groups, while representing an asymmetrical threat, are as formidable a challenge as the Cuban-Soviet alliance.

 

A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the threat posed by Chavez’ actions, Iranian inroads in the hemisphere and Venezuela’s evolving situation. Chavez is, after all, Fidel Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Chavez’ adventurism and Iranian motivations in Venezuela and Latin America.