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Implications of Chavez' Death for Cuba and the United
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
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