Uncertainty in Cuba After the Death of Hugo Chavez / Ivan Garcia

For Joel, a 29-year-old engineer, the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez marks a before and after moment in the Cuban political landscape.

“It’s too soon to be able to analyze the consequences, positive or negative, of someone new in Miraflores. Even if elections are held soon and Nicolás Maduro wins, the exchange of oil for Cuban medical specialists could be adversely affected. Being an optimist, I hope Maduro keeps sending oil to Cuba at favorable rates. On the other hand we are entering a new period of crisis within a crisis that has been going on for 22 years,” says Joel while following developments on TeleSur.

To people waiting in line at a bakery in Sevilano, a neighborhood in Havana’s Tenth of October district, the passing of the Venezuelan leader is also a concern, especially if the flow of oil to Cuba is cut off. Among ordinary people on the island the concept of Chavismo is an abstraction.

The reality is that, after he took power in 1998, his open checkbook policy towards the Castro brother’s revolution and the sale of 100,000 barrels of oil a day at wholesale prices was the main reason Cuba did not suddenly revert to the Stone Age.

A large segment of the population has not forgotten the stark years of the “special period.” Power outages lasting twelve hours. Factories closed down. Economic development projects cancelled due to a shortage of hard currency and empty coffers preventing the purchase of fuel on the world market.

For Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez was a Santa Claus from the south. We now know what this political alliance between the commandate and the Bolivarian represented – a new type of political platform and torrents of petrodollars, which advanced the outlandish theories of socialism, now disguised using different rhetoric.

If you asked people on the streets of Havana what they thought of Chávez, you would probably find he has more devotees than Castro. “The man is more jolly and cheerful than Fidel and he sings boleros and rancheras,” observes a taxi driver.

The other reason is simple. The average Cuban sees him as the man who brought us light. Because thousands of our countrymen also worked in different missions set up by the former parachutist from Barinas, hundreds if not thousands of families on the island have been able to repair their homes or start a small business selling cheap merchandise acquired during their relatives’ sojourn in Venezuela.

This is the case for Lourdes, a 32-year-old nurse. She has travelled half a dozen times to Venezuela. With the money she saved, she was able to start a small business selling clothing with counterfeit labels, whimsical costume jewelry, and electronic equipment such as plasma screen televisions and computers, which she acquires through contacts in Caracas and resells in Havana.

Since the end of December Lourdes has not been able to travel to Venezuela. “The Ministry of Public Health told me, ‘Not until further notice.’ Maybe it is because of Chávez’ illness. Now with Hugo’s death I am afraid the business will fall apart. I don’t trust either Maduro or Cabello. They are from the same party. But if you take Cuba as an example, you will see that Raúl, although faithful to his brother Fidel, has brought new people into his government and eliminated obsolete restrictions.”

At 8:55 PM the Cuban government released a letter of condolence and declared a state of national mourning, to be officially observed from March 7 to Friday, March 8. It is striking that, unlike Rafael Correa, Evo Morales or Sebastián Piñera, General Raúl Castro did not give a televised address.

Moves are made in Cuba at the pace of a slow, rhythmic dance. The margin of error for every word is carefully calculated, as are the repercussions that a speech might have. While we wait for funeral services to begin in Caracas, which Castro II is predicted to attend, the main topic of conversation on Cuba’s streets is the death of the Venezuelan president.

A death announced. A bomb squad silence characterized information on Chávez’s state of health. The lack of transparency in news reporting meant people had to read between the lines of the few and cryptic reports issued by Caracas.

In Havana, sympathizers and detractors alike were respectful during this painful time for the family and followers of the Venezuelan president.

The fate of Venezuela is intimately linked to the future of Cuba. Because its leaders have performed their economic duties so poorly, the island is now more dependent than ever on external factors.

With the death of their leader many Venezuelans are going through an emotional earthquake whose seismic shockwaves could reach all the way to Havana.

Although not unexpected, the demise of Hugo Chávez Frías might lead to more profound economic reforms in Cuba. General Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz Canel, his second-in-command, will find their ability to maneuver put to the test. We will see if they are up to the task.

Iván García

Photo: A Cuban walks in front of a large portrait mural of Hugo Chávez. From informacion.com

6 March 2013