Protesting in Venezuela, with antipathy toward Cuba’s government
Victoria Burnett and William Neuman, The New York Times
CARACAS, Venezuela.- Enraged as they are by their nation’s leaders, many of the protesters who have spilled onto Venezuela’s streets have their eyes fixed on another government altogether, one they resent perhaps just as bitterly as their own: Cuba’s.
The Cuban government and its president, Raúl Castro, they contend, have leeched off Venezuela’s oil wealth, grafted Cuba’s rigid brand of socialism onto their country and helped choreograph a broad crackdown on dissent.
Their rancor is echoed by the Cuban opposition, which has thrown itself behind the Venezuelan protesters’ cause with gusto, sharing photos and videos of protests and police abuse on Twitter, urging Venezuelans to resist and even rapping an apology for what they call Cuba’s meddling.
The fixation with the influence of Cuba in Venezuela’s affairs reflects how meshed the two countries’ economic and political realities remain a year after the death of Venezuela’s longtime president, Hugo Chávez, who was Fidel Castro’s closest foreign ally.
“We are invaded by Cubans,” said Reinerit Romero, 48, a secretary who attended a recent demonstration here to protest shortages of basic foodstuffs. The Venezuelan armed forces, she asserted, are infiltrated with Cuban agents dressed in Venezuelan uniforms.
At the same march, Carlos Rasquin, 60, a psychiatrist, carried a sign that read, “No to Cubanization.” By “Cubanization,” he said, he meant repressing dissident activity, quashing private enterprise and eliminating perceived enemies of the government in civil society.
“You can’t see it very much, but you can feel it a lot,” he said of the Cuban presence.
“Everyone knows that the Cubans control military intelligence, police intelligence,” he added, standing near dozens of soldiers in riot gear, armed with shotguns, tear gas and truncheons, who blocked demonstrators from marching on government offices. “They control the coordination of the armed forces.”
Such convictions are held by critics in both countries, although they offer little hard evidence to back their suspicions. And while some former Venezuelan military officers say that Cubans are involved in decision-making in the armed forces, some protesters go further, professing to see what they call “the hairy hand” of Cuba everywhere: saying they have detected Cuban “infiltrators” at street protests; seeing a Cuban hallmark in the tactics of Venezuela’s armed forces; and circulating unsubstantiated Internet reports that Cuban special forces, or Black Wasps, are operating in Venezuela.
“You can hear their accents,” said Rubén Izquierdo, an engineer who said that Cuban agents were surely among the crowd at the recent march. “I’ve seen it. They direct the repression.”
When government officials called last week for a criminal investigation of a prominent opposition lawmaker, María Corina Machado, accusing her of treason for supporting the protests, she said, “It’s clear to me that it was the Castro brothers who gave the order” for the actions against her.
The Cuban government, which dismisses its own domestic opposition as mercenaries paid by the American government, has not responded directly to such assertions.
Instead, Bruno Rodríguez, the Cuban foreign minister, made an attack this month on “interference” in Venezuela — by the Organization of American States and the United States, where lawmakers like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, have called for tougher action against Venezuela’s government and accused Cuba of “exporting repression” there.
Mr. Rubio, a fiery defender of the American economic embargo of Cuba, introduced legislation with two other senators this month that would authorize $15 million in new funding next year for human rights and civil society programs in Venezuela and require President Obama to impose sanctions on people involved in serious human rights violations.
The protests in Venezuela have energized members of Cuba’s fragmented and heavily monitored opposition, becoming a focus for activism that, some feel, yields frustratingly little on the island.
“My Twitter account right now is basically Venezuelan,” said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a Cuban opposition blogger currently in the United States. He said he was in touch with members of the Venezuelan opposition via Facebook and Twitter, and would like to see actions that show solidarity, such as a “peace flotilla” off the Venezuelan coast.
“The fate of Castro-ism may be at play in Venezuela,” Mr. Pardo said. “What we were not able to topple in Cuba, we may be able to topple there.”
Venezuelan opposition members’ resentment of Cuba stems partly from a deal under which their oil-rich country ships about $4 billion worth of crude oil to Cuba each year. In return, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors, dentists, technicians and sports coaches to work in Venezuela. Critics question how the value of those workers is calculated and point to problems in some of the social programs they work in, but many among Venezuela’s poor praise the Cuban presence, especially the doctors.
“It’s a great benefit,” said Marisol Echenique, 34, who on a recent morning stopped at a free neighborhood clinic operated by Cuban doctors, where she was given medicine for a stomach problem. “We can come here at any hour and depend on the Cubans.” She added that a niece takes dance lessons with a Cuban instructor through a separate government program.
Still, even among supporters of the relationship, there are occasional culture clashes.
“I value the Cuban doctors,” said Arizay Vegas, 40, waiting at a clinic staffed by Cuban doctors in Caracas. She recalled rushing to the clinic at 4 a.m. about a year ago, when her 2-year-old granddaughter fell out of bed and cut her head. “Here it’s very fast, and the treatment is good,” she said.
But when the Cuban doctor in charge of the clinic asked a reporter to leave because he did not have permission to interview patients, Ms. Vegas became indignant.
I will say this, I hope the people of Venezuela restore democracy, sanity and good government to their country. As much as believe that...
“We’re not in Cuba, we’re in Venezuela,” Ms. Vegas said. “I’m free to say whatever I want.”
The opposition is deeply suspicious of Cuba’s influence over policy and government decisions. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, frequently praises the Castros in public speeches. When Mr. Chávez was ailing from cancer he went to Cuba for his surgery. And in the weeks before his death last year, Havana seemed almost to have become a de facto seat of Venezuela’s government, as a stream of top officials jetted there for meetings.
Beyond that, there is a sense among some in the Venezuelan opposition that the country, with its shortages of basic products and long lines, is becoming more like Cuba by the day.
“It’s a kind of a replay of the misery and the lines that you see in Cuba,” Mr. Rasquin said.
Danilo Maldonado Machado, a Cuban graffiti artist known as El Sexto, hopes that the protests will force out Mr. Maduro, bring an end to the oil subsidies and plunge Cuba into economic chaos. “I am convinced Maduro will fall,” Mr. Maldonado said.
That is a fearful prospect for many Cubans, who lived through years of blackouts and punishing shortages after the Soviet Union collapsed. It is also highly speculative: The government appears very stable, although Mr. Maduro, who was elected nearly a year ago, frequently says he is the target of conspiracies and coup plots. On Tuesday, he said that three air force generals had been arrested and accused of planning a military uprising.
Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group in Cuba, said it was unclear what effect events in Venezuela would have on the island. “At the end of the day, we have to find our own way forward,” she said.
Still, the notion that Cuba’s future is at play in Venezuela is tempting hard-liners from both sides, including influential Cuban Americans, to polarize the conflict further, said Arturo López-Levy, a former Cuban security analyst who lectures at the University of Denver.
“Compromise is not a word in the lexicon of the Cuban revolution,” or of the Cuban exile community, Mr. López-Levy said.
For all the connections between the countries, Venezuela is far from the level of state vigilance that keeps Cubans on edge and allows security officials to snuff out protests before dissidents even leave their houses, analysts and opposition members said.
“There is a civil society in Venezuela,” said Eugenio Yañez, a Cuban commentator and former academic who lives in Miami. “The Cuban opposition would love to be able to do what they’re doing in Venezuela, but they can’t.”
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