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