Electoral Defeat in Venezuela Could Accelerate Reforms in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Iván García, Diario de las Américas, 8 December 2015 — Just past midnight, when Cuba’s military bigwigs heard the president of the Venezuelan electoral college, Tibisay Lucena, confirm the loss of Nicolas Maduro’s PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) in the December 6 parliamentary elections, alarm bells went off in the offices of Cuba’s Palace of the Revolution.

The epicenter of the Venezuelan political earthquake shook official Cuba, the one made up of timid statesmen, irresponsible officials and radical ideologues who try to govern a nation by adding one plus zero.

The virtual country designed by Raul Castro’s advisors — those who have hidden Cuba’s structural, political, economic and social problems — is a double-edged sword.

Maintaining an iron fisted-control over the island’s media has allowed them to present to the world the image of a society made up of a pleasant, committed people by means of a publicity stunt called the Cuban Revolution.

It did exist, but after 1976 it became a nation with an institutionalized Soviet court that used Marxism as its political guidebook.

Thanks to an efficient intelligence apparatus, the Castro brothers have governed the country without having to deal with popular protests by suppressing a tiny domestic dissident movement whose tactical errors have shown it does not known how or has not been able to connect with the average Cuban.

Cuba managed to export its inane economic ideology to Venezuela. When Colonel Hugo Rafael Chavez was nothing more than the leader of a coup, Fidel Castro saw in him a future statesman.

After Chavez was released from prison, Castro welcomed him to Havana with the pomp and circumstance befitting a president. Chavez’ mentor monitored his every move. Given Castro’s skill, he was able to install in Caracas’ presidential palace something better than an ideological and strategic ally. He installed a ventriloquist.

The Castro brothers can claim one unquestionable accomplishment: they now exert remote control over a nation with three times the population, GDP and natural resources of their own.

When corruption, popular discontent and uncontrolled poverty allowed Hugo Chavez to enter Venezuelan politics through the back door, he carried a portfolio whose outlines had been drawn by his mentor, Fidel.

The biggest mistake of Chavez, Maduro and the Castros has been to govern only for the benefit of their supporters. There have been other major blunders, such as the ideologization of education, the nationalization of private businesses and the dismantling of the machinery of a functioning economy.

Caracas’ response has been to blame the eternal enemies: Yankee imperialism, the bourgeoisie and the local business community. In spite of his corruption scandals, Brazil’s President Lula and Uruguay’s President Mujica showed themselves to be  different kinds of leftists.

Like good travel companions, the Brazilian and Uruguayan presidents supported or quieted the excesses and absurdities of their ideological partners on the international stage. But they did not fracture their societies like Chavez or the Castros did.

Chavez’s megalomania became a hindrance. The death of the paratrooper from Sabaneta de Barinas, like that of any leader, left an insurmountable power vacuum.

If Maduro had been prudent, he would have formed alliances with the opposition in order to get through the downturn. By the time he came to power, conditions had changed. The export boom in raw materials was over and oil prices had plunged, but he failed to properly assess the situation.

Nicolas Maduro’s frequent foolish statements, profanity and insults will not put an end to inflation, currency depreciation, organized crime, food shortages or social tensions in Venezuela.

More than the Venezuelan opposition, the PSUV’s main contender is the people, and on December 6 they spoke. What could happen going forward?

If Maduro does not alter his political strategy, disaster awaits him, either through some form of recall before 2019 or through a substantial and continuing loss of power.

If he had any decency, he would resign as president. After countless missteps in running the country, record violence, official corruption and two relatives of his wife accused of drug trafficking, the best way out for Maduro, and for preserving Chavez’ legacy, would be for him to leave office.

But I do not think this will happen. People like him derive their authority by going against the tide. Diplomacy is not their strength. Quite the opposite with Raul Castro. When he became president in 2006, few would have bet a penny on him.

He had a reputation as a drunkard and a shadowy conspirator. He came to power only because he was Fidel’s brother. The relief pitcher came along at a critical moment. He faced a stagnant economy in crisis and a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who had died in jail from a hunger strike.

Raul was besieged in the international arena by the United States and the European Union due to his brother’s disastrous policy decision to jail seventy-five dissidents in the spring of 2003.

But the Cuban autocrat knows how to negotiate a favorable treaty with the White House and the EU without easing up on his repression of dissidents or changing the status quo too much.

Raul Castro is an expert at blowing smoke. A year after December 17 he has not implemented a strategy in response to President Obama’s road map.

Perhaps the electoral drubbing in Venezuela on December 6 combined with the unstoppable exodus of Cubans will encourage him to adopt of serious reforms. Though you never know with the Castros.