Chávez, the Substitute for the Russians?

The government of the Castro brothers has staked everything on one card. That of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the strong man of Venezuela, a walking-talking comic strip, bursting out with some bizarre nonsense every minute. Chávez defies every canon of a balanced, sober and coherent statesman.

It could be a bible passage, or he might sing you folk song, or declaim one of his usual Maisanta poems, this Venezuelan fighter against the Spanish Colonialism of the 19th century. A deep and serious student, of course, of Simón Bolívar the Liberator.

And he has launched the strange theory that Bolívar died as the result of a complex Yankee plot. If he were a clown, comedian or a simple citizen of the state of Barinas, he would pass unnoticed. But he is the president of one of the major oil-producing countries of the world.

He has the hard currency to splurge on his extravagant projects, and considers himself a new Bolívar for the 21st century. He is committed to a different and humane socialism, but applies the same coercive measures his predecessors used to build communism.

Chávez is a confused ideological amalgam. He believes in God and Marx.  He is anti-Yankee, and since he came to power in 1999, he has radicalized his rhetoric, not only against the United States, but against all the countries of the first world.

His goal is to develop an entente among poor nations, who trade among themselves, use a common currency and who don’t rely for anything on the predatory trade with rich countries. He follows the usual custom of statesmen of “socialist societies,” who have the rare mania for perpetuating their own power, and who crush the opposition and the media.

Chávez is the classic bad boy of any meeting, debate, or world symposium where he makes an appearance.  He has no sense of moderation or respect. His brain is connected directly to his mouth. Any idea, no matter how absurd, spews forth without any processing by his mind. He has no clutch. Just an accelerator and a brake.

Let us add that the Red Commander runs his cabinet like a military barracks and distributes perks and positions among this friends and family, like every previous depraved Venezuelan president whom Chávez so frequently criticizes.

He came to power through the back door, thanks to a society paralyzed by the skyrocketing poverty and corruption in Venezuela. When democracies fail, they provide breeding grounds for these type of bullying strongmen.

From the Caribbean, Fidel Castro took note.  After the USSR said “see you later” to the bizarre communist ideology, Cuba found itself heading back to the stone age. Long blackouts, little food, a wartime economy and a large segment of the population angry and hopeless, whose only goal was to cross the Straits of Florida on a rustic raft or to marry some boring and lonely middle-aged Spaniard.

Castro had to make concessions.  Allow self-employment and small pockets of a mixed, market economy, but it wasn’t enough to move forward, though combined with the billion dollars being sent by families in Miami, it supplied him oxygen and precious time to keep his revolution from blowing away with the wind.

But the Castros worried greatly about a section of the population gaining independence. Money begets power, and makes people question the status quo. And so, the peripatetic Hugo Chávez seemed like a gift of the gods.

He had oil and money. He was a confessed admirer of Castro and had a handful of incendiary ideas that if used wisely could create a minefield for the gringos in Latin America.

Of course these were different times. Fidel Castro is a skilled political strategist, but to install a clone of the Cuban revolution in Caracas he would have to demolish the structures of civil society and free press. And obviously a segment of his dark-haired friends would not stand idly by and just watch their country go down the drain.

It is logical, than, that by February 2010 Chávez was having a terrible time. Closing a cable television station brought street demonstrations and violence. In eleven years under the commander in the red beret, the numbers tell us that there has been no reduction in poverty, corruption or violence.  Quite the contrary.

What has increased is the Cuban presence, in the form of doctors, trainers and military advisers. The Castros, worried about the situation of their ally, have sent their sinister minister of communications, Ramiro Valdés, former head of the Cuban political police and former Minister of the Interior, to see what actions can be taken to stem the disconnect among a wide sector of Venezuelans.

The official Cuban press hasn’t published one line about the latest events in Caracas, nothing about the daily four-hour blackouts, and almost nothing about the presence of Valdés. According to official media in the South American country, Valdés went to develop a plan for the power industry. Hard pill to swallow. Ramiro Valdés, fervent admirer of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first boss of the Russian Cheka, is a neophyte in this area. But if there is something he knows by heart, it is how to repress people.

If Chávez were to lose power, the Cuban economy, under siege, could not withstand the terrible blow of losing oil supplies. It is likely that among the counsels of Valdés are some messages from Fidel Castro, calling for restraint from the restless and unruly Bolivarian commander.

The Castros have bet everything on the Hugo Chávez card. From creating a trade organization, ALBA, or a common currency, the sucre, to depending on South American oil to keep the lights on in Cuba. For them, there is no way they can allow the rash Chávez to throw it all into the abyss. They are going to try everything. The fate of Venezuela is, in a very real sense, the fate of Cuba. And the Cuban government will do whatever it takes to keep the Venezuelan Santa Claus on the throne.

They bet on the wrong horse. But at this point, for the Castros, there is no turning back.

Iván García

Photo: Reuters. Hugo Chávez and Ramiro Valdés, Minister of Communications and Technology, during a recent visit to Venezuela.