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Fidel Castro

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No Revolution in Venezuela

28 November 2006

No Revolution in Venezuela

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m not a populist, I’m a revolutionary,” insisted Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez at a press conference (i.e. a four-hour monologue) in early November. But he is in fact a populist, not a revolutionary — a populist with a great deal of money to hand out, thanks to the record oil prices of the past two years, so a Chavez victory in the presidential election on 3 December was never in doubt. The real question is what he is really doing with all that money and power.

Chavez rejoices in annoying the US government with revolutionary rhetoric, regularly denouncing President Bush as “the Devil,”and when Washington responds with bluster and veiled threats it just fortifies his popularity at home. But so far, after eight years in power, he has attempted nothing that could be called a revolutionary transformation of Venezuelan society. In fact, the rich are just as rich as they ever were.

The lives of many of the poor have certainly got better under Chavez — much improved medical care, free literacy classes, subsidised grocery shops selling basic foods at cut prices, cheap start-up loans for businesses — but that is just oil income diverted straight into services for the poor. Even the 17,000 Cuban doctors provided by Fidel Castro to run the free clinics that have appeared all over the country fit that pattern, for Chavez pays for them with 90,000 barrels a day of free oil for Cuba

There is nothing wrong with spending some of your oil income like this, especially if you think the oil price will stay high for a long time, but it is not revolutionary. It is exactly how many oil-rich kingdoms with deeply conservative rulers ensure decent lives for their poorer citizens and political stability for themselves. In Venezuela, it is now the political norm: the main challenger in this election, Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales, tried to outbid Chavez by promising to issue special black debit cards (“Mi Negra”) with between $270 and $450 of credit on them to 2.5 million poor families. You can’t get much more populist than that.

So what, other that calling the United States bad names, qualifies Chavez as a “revolutionary”? He has gained power by perfectly legitimate democratic elections. He has taken almost nothing new into state ownership except for some — but very few — privately owned sugar plantations. The country still has a free press ( 95 percent of which opposes Chavez), and the middle class is doing so well that new car sales have tripled in Venezuela since 2004.

On a recent visit to Belarus, the last Communist country in Europe, Chavez expressed his deep admiration for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but one suspects that Lenin would not have reciprocated. One even wonders what Chavez’s great pal Fidel Castro privately thinks of him. (Actually, I think I know: “A well-intentioned man, but an ideologically immature populist with a short attention span.”)

Chavez, together with Evo Morales of Bolivia, is the only evidence for the wave of radical leftist regimes that are allegedly sweeping to power in Latin America, and he is not a very convincing piece of evidence. Elsewhere, the alleged standard-bearers of leftist radicalism are mostly burnt-out cases like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, once the leader of the Sandinistas but now a Catholic social conservative, or Alan Garcia, the once radical Peruvian politician who was recently re-elected to the presidency on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

The real promoters of change in Latin America are centre-left politicians like Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, but they are social democrats in the classic Western European mould and they mostly avoid anti-American rhetoric. In the end, they will do far more to undermine Washington’s stranglehold on Latin America than Chavez, Castro and Co., and far more good for their people, too.

Chavez, like Castro, is good at revolutionary theatre, but he has little of Castro’s underlying seriousness. Often he offers nothing but froth and bombast, as when he celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Venezuelan flag last March by introducing a new version in which the white horse, rather than going from left to right, goes from right to left. “The white horse is now liberated, free, vigorous, trotting towards the left, representing the return of Bolivar and his dream!” he told the crowd. ” Long live the Fatherland!”

Chavez promises to get serious about the revolution after this election, starting with redistributing most of the land to the peasants (currently, 5 percent of land-owners hold 80 percent of the country’s land), but there is no particular reason to think that he really means it this time. He is a narcissist and an accomplished populist, with oil money to burn. He may even turn out to be Venezuela’s Peron, hanging around to blight the country’s politics for decades after his own time is up thanks to a dedicated following among the poor.

But he is not a revolutionary, and the proof lies in his own definition of the word: “It’s like love. You have to make love every day in many ways. Sometimes carnally, sometimes with your eyes, sometimes with your voice. A revolution is love.”

Right on, Hugo.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“On a recent…span”; and “Chavez, like…Fatherland”)

THIS ARTICLE MAY BE USED BEFORE OR AFTER THE ELECTION ON 3 DECEMBER.

After Castro

3 August 2006

After Castro

By Gwynne Dyer

“Are revolutions doomed to fail?” asked Fidel Castro last November, addressing an audience of university students in a five-hour speech that was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted until dawn. “When the veterans start disappearing, to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done? Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible?”

Those questions haunt Cubans now, as the 79-year-old Maximum Leader recovers from surgery for “intestinal bleeding,” having temporarily handed power over to his designated successor, his brother Raul. Some Cubans desperately hope that Fidel will survive; others hope just as strongly that he and his revolution will pass away. But the only people currently in a position to affect the outcome are the senior officials of the Cuban Communist Party. None of their alternatives is ideal.

Brother Raul is not a viable long-term option: he is too old (75), and he suffers from a drastic lack of charisma. There is a younger generation of dedicated Communists, people like Vice-President Carlos Lage Davila and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, but they aren’t exactly pop stars either. For almost half a century Cubans have been incited, flattered, thrilled and scolded by the incendiary rhetoric of the 20th century’s most articulate revolutionary, and he is a hard act to follow. But there is Hugo Chavez.

Chavez’s drawbacks as a replacement for Fidel Castro are obvious: he is the president of another country, Venezuela, and he is not a Communist. On the other hand, he is a tireless revolutionary orator in the Castro mode, he is the right racial mixture to appeal to the downtrodden in many Latin American countries — and he does have money. With oil at its present near-record price, about $200 million in oil revenues is flowing into Caracas every day (half of it from the United States), and Chavez has already proved generous to his friends.

The Communist bosses would expect to go on making the real decisions in Cuba, of course. As hardened masters of the dialectic, they are bound to see Chavez as a naive, impulsive romantic, and in any case no Cuban nationalist would hand over his country’s destiny to a mere Venezuelan. But a formal merger of the two countries, rather along the lines of the “United Arab Republic” that Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser once declared with Syria and Libya, would have major advantages for a beleaguered post-Castro Communist regime in Havana.

That regime will be under tremendous pressure from the United States, where Cuban exiles in Miami are already celebrating Castro’s coming emise. In Washington, the Bush administration has appointed Caleb McCarry as “transition co-ordinator” for Cuba, with a budget of $59 million to “hasten the transition” and help Cubans “recover their freedom after 47 years of brutal dictatorship”.

US hostility to the Castro regime has been relentless for all of those years, even when Washington found reasons to back brutal dictatorships elsewhere in Latin America. The Bush administration has worked hard to raise the pressure on Cuba, creating the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica and Treasury Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American), and reinforcing the long-standing trade embargo by cutting the remittances that Cuban exiles can send home to their families.

The Cuban Communists fear indirect or even direct US interference in the country to destabilise the regime following Fidel’s departure. They worry out loud about the loyalty of a younger generation whose nationalism (which in Cuba means anti-Americanism) is at war with its urgent desire for access to all the pleasures of consumerism. They worry more quietly about the millions of Cubans who really would like to see democracy in their country. Plenty of reasons, then, to consider the Chavez option.

A formal link between Cuba and Venezuela, with Chavez as joint president, would give the regime in Havana new ideological impetus by appealing to the old Bolivarian dream of a unified Latin America. It would give Cuba more access to Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan financial aid, and perhaps even the modern arms that Venezuela is now buying from Russia.

Chavez would be a sucker for such a proposal, partly because it would appeal to his own Bolivarian dreams and partly because it would drive the US government crazy. As he said last year at a meeting of the Joint Commission on the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement Between Cuba and Venezuela, “Cuba and Venezuela have joined together, and at this point, the world should know that our fate is sealed, that these two homelands, which deep down are one, are opening a new road at whatever cost.”

It isn’t just a pipe dream. The first person to suggest in public that the Cuban regime might be seriously considering such a union was Ana Faya, now a senior analyst at the Canadian Foundation for Latin America (FOCAL) in Ottawa, but for ten years, until she fled to Canada in 2000, an official of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. “It wouldn’t be outrageous,” she said in an interview last October. “(But) it should take place while (Fidel) Castro is still in charge.”

If she is right, it will now have become a very urgent priority in Havana.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “”That regime…families”)

Cuba and Venezuela

21 October 2005

Cuba and Venezuela

By Gwynne Dyer

“It wouldn’t be outrageous,” said Ana Faya of her suspicion that Cuba and Venezuela might unite one of these days. After all, the senior analyst at the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) in Ottawa pointed out, the idea of uniting Latin American countries has been around since the revolutions of Bolivar and San Martin against Spain almost two centuries ago. And she certainly knows how Cuban Communists think: for ten years, until she fled to Canada in 2000, she was an official of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

The Cuban regime’s biggest problem by far is: who succeeds Fidel Castro? The official answer is his youngest brother Raul, currently vice-president and defence minister, but ideologically committed Cuban  Communists still have problems with the idea that political power can be inherited. They also suspect Raul of being soft on capitalism.

Fidel Castro has had a remarkably rapid recovery from a fall last October that broke his arm and shattered his kneecap in eight places, but he will turn eighty next August. He has ruled Cuba for 46 years, but he will soon have to be replaced. If the revolution is to survive, his   replacement had better be a man with contemporary revolutionary credentials, a man with the charisma and resources to keep the show on the road. A man, perhaps, like Hugo Chavez.

Chavez is Venezuelan, not Cuban, but that may not be as big a problem as it seems. Many people on the left in Latin America, including “Bolivarians” like Chavez and most of the Marxists, have always seen the division of the region into more than a dozen Spanish-speaking countries as a misfortune, not a law of nature. Cuba and Venezuela are already closely tied economically and politically, and Chavez, though neither a Communist nor a dictator, shares Castro’s social goals and his hostility to the United States. It just might work.

As an analyst, Ana Faya monitors what senior people in the Cuban regime and in the governments of neighbouring countries are saying in public, because it probably bears some relationship, however distant, to their real intentions. And here is what she has been hearing recently.

On October 5, 2005, at the signing of the 6th Joint Commission on the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and Venezuela, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage Dávila said: “Our country has been accused of not having a democracy, but in events like this one we realize that we are one of the most democratic countries of the world, because we have two presidents, Fidel and Chávez.” And Chavez replied: “Cuba and Venezuela have joined together, and at this point, the world should know that our fate is sealed, that these two homelands, which deep down are one, are opening a new road at whatever cost.”

It could be just the usual windy rhetoric, but suppose it isn’t. Suppose there actually is a plan to unite the two countries, with Chavez and Castro as co-presidents, and to leave Hugo Chavez in power over both countries when Fidel, thirty years his senior, finally dies. “Castro has the power and the credibility,” Faya noted. “It’s a real possibility.” But, she added, “It should take place while (Fidel) Castro is still in charge.” It’s certainly not a plan that would appeal to Raul

Where would Castro have got such a radical idea? One of his political idols as a young man was the Egyptian revolutionary Gamal Abdel Nasser (whom he met soon after taking power on his famous trip to New York in 1960) And at that time Nasser was busy uniting Egypt, Syria and Libya in the United Arab Republic. It didn’t last very long, but that doesn’t mean that a similar experiment in Spanish-speaking America would also be doomed to failure. One great attraction of a political merger with Venezuela for Castro is that Cuba would suddenly gain access to the cash flow and the political clout of a major oil producer.

As for Chavez, his motives and his loyalties are transparently Bolivarian. Visiting Italy last week, he went to Monte Sacro, near Rome, where Simon Bolivar made his famous oath to free Latin America from Spanish rule exactly two centuries ago. Bolivar had said: “I shall not give rest to my arm nor respite to my soul until I have broken the chains that oppress us by the will of the Spanish power.” Chavez declared that  Venezuelans “should not rest their arms or their souls until we have broken the chains that oppress our people due to the will of the North-American Empire.”

Impractical, hopelessly idealistic stuff, in the sense that Cuba and Venezuela would be only 35 million people together, totally outmatched by the almost 300 million people and twenty-times-bigger economy of the United States — but Washington is severely distracted by its faltering Middle Eastern adventure at the moment.

History is full of surprises, and this could be one that really overturns normal expectations. Uniting with Venezuela would not preserve Castro’s system unchanged after his death, for it is old, authoritarian, and out of tune with the times. But it might win Cuba enough time to make a peaceful transition to a democratic system that retains the main gains of his revolution in terms of equal access to education, health care and social support. Chavez will never be a Cuban and he cannot rule that island in the long term — but in the short term, he could save it a great deal of misery.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Where…Empire”)