If you want evidence that the Cuban regime is the real master of Venezuela’s murky and corrupt politics, look no further than the statement issued by the beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, in response to the coming normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties announced yesterday.
“I am very happy,” Maduro gushed, according to a report from the regime’s English-language mouthpiece, Venezuelanalysis. “We must recognize the gesture of President Barack Obama, a brave and necessary gesture in history. He has taken a step, perhaps the most important one of his presidency.”
Given that as recently as March, Maduro was warning Obama that it “would be the worst mistake of your life to authorize the assassination of President Nicolas Maduro and fill Venezuela with violence,” this marks progress of sorts. In recent weeks, Maduro has even been cautiously flattering Obama, arguing that while the Eric Garner ruling demonstrates that racism in America has gotten worse under its first black president, “I respect Obama personally. But I think he’s a hostage of the real powers in the United States, and he decided not to fight. He’s tired, exhausted.”
It would, however, be a grave mistake to conclude that the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will stabilize the chavista regime, whatever Maduro says. The Venezuelan president, who spent the years 1986 and 1987 receiving his political training at the sinisterly-named “School of Political Education” in Havana, has long been dismissed by the Venezuelan opposition as a Cuban agent controlled by the Castro brothers, and therefore forbidden from openly criticizing Cuba’s ruling Communists.
Were Maduro permitted to say what he’s really thinking, we would see a decidedly different reaction. For the last fifteen years, and with the active collusion of first Hugo Chavez, and then Maduro, Cuba has treated Venezuela as a colony. By supplying the Cubans with 100,000 barrels of oil per day, a subsidy worth on average around $7 billion annually, the chavistas rescued Fidel Castro from the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which meant that Cuba could no longer ship its sugar to the USSR at an inflated price.
Although the Venezuelans provided the Cubans with salvation economically, from the very beginning it was Havana that called the shots politically. In his biography of Chavez, Comandante, the journalist Rory Carroll recounted a conversation with a leading Chavez confidante identified only as “Andres.” “The old fox sniffed him right out,” Andres related, as he described the first meeting between Fidel and a starstruck Chavez. “He recognized Chavez’s potential straightaway. And his weaknesses.”
The oil arrangement was a clear win for the Cubans. As well as securing an oil supply without having to part with much-needed hard currency, the barter deal agreed with Caracas allowed the Cubans to send military and intelligence officers to Venezuela along with the doctors and nurses who arrived there in lieu of cash payments for the oil.
At the same time, though, Cuba’s control of Venezuela was never absolute. When Chavez was first diagnosed with the cancer he eventually succumbed to in a Cuban hospital in 2013, The Economist presciently observed that “Venezuela apart, nowhere would his departure from office be felt more strongly than in Cuba.” At that time, not only was the Venezuelan opposition finally getting its act together, but fissures within the regime were also becoming visible. The Cubans rightly feared that without Chavez, they would eventually have to look elsewhere for a lifeline.
Almost two years after Chavez’s death, the value of Venezuela to Cuba’s future has declined precipitously. Maduro now faces a real rival in the form of Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, who does not share his fealty to the Cubans and is closely tied to the generals and other military officers who make their money from narcotics trafficking. And there is a third faction too: the colectivos, chavista paramilitaries based in poor urban neighborhoods, are increasingly unhappy with Maduro, who can no longer sustain the social programs launched by Chavez that won him the votes he needed to stay in power.
The economic outlook for Venezuela is as uncertain as the political one. With 96 percent of its dollar earnings coming from oil exports, the dramatic tumble in oil prices has boosted speculation that Caracas will default on its foreign debt and exposed the country’s isolation within OPEC, where the Saudis and Kuwaitis have made it plain that they are content to live with low oil prices for a while longer. What this means in concrete terms is that Venezuela loses $700 million a year for each $1 per barrel drop in oil prices.
No wonder, then, that the Cubans are now looking elsewhere–and specifically to the United States–for political and economic support. And no wonder that Maduro looks like an emperor with no clothes: after all, the Cuban subsidy was a major factor behind the shortage of basic goods and the rampant inflation within Venezuela. Maduro has precious little to justify the relationship cemented by his predecessor, especially now that the country is at its lowest point since Chavez took power. Indeed, the Venezuelan president cannot even rely on the Cubans to provide him with rhetorical support, as he attempts to combat a congressional bill that denies visas to and freezes the assets of those Venezuelan officials behind the repression of pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year.
“It looks like Raul [Castro] is cheating on Nicolas!” joked Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles after learning of the U.S.-Cuba deal. The chavistas “were never allies of the Castros as Chavez tried to make us believe for too many years,” wrote the dissident blogger, Daniel Duquenal. “We were just a Castro colony, a pawn with an accidental wallet to pluck.” Those reactions are fairly typical of how Venezuelans perceive the new climate between the U.S. and Cuba, and how skeptical they are of Maduro’s claim that he is delighted by the warming of ties.
Yet even if Maduro’s days are numbered, that does not imply that Venezuela’s democratic future is assured. Prominent opposition figures like Leopoldo Lopez, Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos remain incarcerated in jail, and the regime is determined that Maria Corina Machado, another outspoken opposition figure, will share the same fate. Obama may have pulled Cuba back from the precipice, but, as always, the Venezuelans will be left to their own devices.