Meeting in Cuba Angers Venezuelan Opposition

| Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 | No Comments »

The New York TimesBY WILLIAM NEUMAN

CARACAS, Venezuela — With the president absent and ailing, the country on edge and the government eager to portray a sturdy sense of continuity, there might be nothing unusual about the most powerful officials in Venezuela meeting over the weekend, except for the location they chose for the sit-down: Havana.

It has been five weeks since President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela went to Cuba for his fourth cancer-related operation, and the normally garrulous leader has not been seen or heard from in public since — a closely guarded silence that underscores the extremely tight relationship between the two countries.

Venezuelan officials have worn a path between the two nations with frequent trips to Mr. Chávez’s bedside. But for opponents of Venezuela’s government, who have long warned of the extent of Cuba’s influence, the weekend meeting was simply too much.

The Cuban newspaper Granma reported that the officials met with Fidel and Raúl Castro to discuss “aspects of the strategic alliance between both countries.”

“The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana,” said Leopoldo López, the leader of an opposition party, Popular Will.

Cuba has everything to lose from a change of leadership in Venezuela, a possibility if Mr. Chávez dies or is too sick to continue as president. For years, Venezuela has propped up Cuba’s limping economy with oil shipments on generous terms. Government opponents have long resented that arrangement, and now they fear that Cuba is seeking to influence events in Venezuela to keep the oil flowing.

Depending on the price of oil, Cuba sends goods or services to Venezuela as barter for 40 percent to 50 percent of the market value of the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil it receives a day, said Jorge R. Piñon, an expert at the University of Texas at Austin. Over the years that has included thousands of doctors and nurses, sports trainers and advisers to the armed forces and security services. The remainder, 50 percent to 60 percent of the shipments’ value, is treated as a loan, to be paid back over 25 years at 1 percent interest.

If that arrangement ended, Cuba would be forced to buy its oil on the open market, costing about $4 billion a year at current prices and probably pushing it into a recession, Mr. Piñon said. “The political impact for Cuba losing its Venezuelan support will be catastrophic,” he said. “The economic impact will be substantial.”

Venezuelan officials defend the oil shipments to Cuba and the closeness of the relationship by saying that the two countries have much in common, including a revolutionary ideology and an attitude of defiance toward the United States.

The most visible Cuban presence here is in the doctors who staff hundreds of small neighborhood clinics established by Mr. Chávez. But the Cuban barter comes in many forms, ranging from the reported training of intelligence officers, which was discussed in an American State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks, to the building of an ice cream factory.

On Tuesday, after returning from Havana, Vice President Nicolás Maduro shot back at critics of the relationship with Cuba.

“There are those who say that we are a colony of Cuba,” Mr. Maduro said during a televised government meeting. “Really, it’s an offense against Cuba and against Venezuela.” He said the two countries shared “the most profound brotherhood.”

He added that he had visited Mr. Chávez, who he said was “advancing” in his recovery. He said that they had discussed government issues and that Mr. Chávez had asked questions of his subordinates.

But opponents cite the presence of Cuban advisers in the military and other aspects of government as evidence of the Castros’ not-so-hidden hand.

Mr. Maduro, whom Mr. Chávez has picked as his successor if he cannot continue as president, is seen in particular as being very close to the Cubans. He leads a faction within Mr. Chávez’s movement that is deeply committed to Cuban-style revolution and establishing socialism in Venezuela, and he received political training in Cuba as a young man. The man seen as his main rival, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, is believed to be less friendly to Cuba.

Demonstrators in Caracas focused on Cuba at a rally over the weekend that was called to protest a Supreme Court ruling allowing last Thursday’s scheduled swearing in of Mr. Chávez to be postponed indefinitely, letting him continue as president despite his prolonged absence. People in the crowd of a few hundred held signs denouncing Cuba and chanted, “Cubans, go away!”

“Never in 200 years of our history as a republic has the future of Venezuela been decided outside Venezuela,” María Corina Machado, an opposition legislator, told the crowd. “How can they talk today about independence? What independence? What independence? When in Venezuela we know that our security and intelligence agencies, our notaries and registries are totally infiltrated by people, officials and functionaries of the Cuban government.”

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