The Cuban protests resonate in Venezuela
By Ibsen Martínez
Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan novelist, television screenplay writer, playwright and essayist. He lives in exile in Bogotá. This piece originally appeared in the New York Times in Spanish with Spanish-English translation by Peter Katel.
Leading Venezuelan observers believe that the sudden and dramatic wave of protests that shook Cuba July 11 will hit the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, heralding imminent good news for my country. These observers see the Cuban regime as heading unstoppably toward collapse. The thinking goes that this will produce shock waves that shortly will make the return of Venezuelan democracy inevitable. Perhaps I am too gloomy, but I think that this assumes too much.
Can one expect the Cuban events to directly affect Venezuelan politics? And is there anything that the Venezuelan opposition can do to hasten the end of oppression of Venezuelans and Cubans by the allied regimes of Caracas and Havana?
To answer these questions, we have to understand the nature and the scope of the ties that have moved both countries ever closer economically, politically and militarily over the past 20 years.
In 2012, the stellar year of the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement that Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, both now departed, signed in October, 2000, Venezuelan subsidies and direct investment in Cuba reached $16 billion, nearly 12 percent of the island’s GDP.
The sudden drop in crude oil prices in 2015, the corruption and ineptitude of the Maduro regime and the global ravages of the pandemic have cut these amounts almost in half.
The island’s economy has been hit hard by the Venezuelan crisis and by the pandemic’s negative effects on tourism. But although President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s planners are now looking to Russia and China, they still haven’t found a trade partner who compares with chavista-era Venezuela.
For Maduro, meanwhile, military cooperation agreements with Cuba have never been so important.
These agreements, signed in 2008, grant Cuba maximum political control of the Boliviarian Armed Forces. They focus on counterintelligence, on advising and training military personnel, on the presence of Cuban officers in Venezuelan barracks, and on intelligence agencies’ surveillance of Venezuelan military brass.
The Venezuelan dictator owes the unshakeable support of Venezuela’s military largely to Cuba. This is no small thing. Keep in mind that for nearly 20 years, and on more than one occasion, major opposition leaders have wagered unsuccessfully that mass citizen protest would lead to a military revolt.
All of the above explains that, despite the oil price crash and production drop, plus Venezuela’s deep economic crisis and humanitarian emergency, the flow of Venezuelan oil to Cuba has continued, even in defiance of U.S. sanctions in effect since 2019.
The Cuban political crisis hits Venezuela at a moment when it is torn apart by the gravest immigration crisis our continent has ever seen. At the same time, the country is reeling under the pandemic, and the negligence of a criminal regime. Poverty afflicts the country even as its people are terrorized by criminals and the police.
Added to these woes, most Venezuelans, ravaged by shortages and the pandemic, look upon politicians with indifference, if not loathing.
Most of the opposition leadership seems bewildered, captivated by the notion of regional elections. These have been called – without reasonable conditions for voting – by a regime that violates human and political rights. In addition, Venezuelan oppositionists have a tragic habit of overrating international influence.
Looking at Cuba, the collapse of the Havana regime does not seem to lie in the immediate future, to be followed by the inevitable fall of Chavismo-Madurismo. More likely, repression and human rights violations in both countries will worsen – and even be coordinated binationally.
Even assuming that citizen protests lead in the coming months to political and economic changes in Cuba, much will depend on time and on the personal qualities of whoever takes the lead of the admirably courageous Cubans.
As Cuban historian Rafael Rojas has tweeted, the shape of future events also depends on the civic spirit of Cuban protesters, and on U.S. policy. The latter, fortunately, is taking the form of individual sanctions and on measures to facilitate internet access.
Sergio Ramírez noted recently, writing of his Nicaragua, that today’s opposing forces in our Americas are none other than dictatorship and democracy. Very tough times are coming our way. The Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan dictatorships are ready to go for broke.
Maduro and Díaz-Canel have a lot at stake. As allies in tyranny, they won’t hold back. The future consequences for our two nations – and not just in the short term – are not hard to imagine.
The Cuban moment demands that Venezuelan politicians assume an attitude of realistic seriousness, no longer simply condemning the regime’s henchmen and declaring solidarity with protesters. They must do everything within their power to lend a hand.
The interim government led by Juan Guaidó, which is recognized by dozens of nations, could make active diplomacy a bigger priority on its diplomatic agenda. This would take the form of high-level activism to support human and political rights on the island, thereby increasing world governments’ pressure on Havana.
We Venezuelans are anxiously watching the shift, unthinkable only weeks ago, that Cubans’ courage has forced on their tragic circumstances. This among people who, in the videos, look so much like ours.
Regaining transparent elections and full democracy in Venezuela will, in the long run, win them for Cuba.
Not the other way around.