Is Venezuela the new Cuba?
It takes a brave man to mention the word Cuba among certain company in Venezuela.
For detractors of President Hugo Chavez, the island is synonymous with all they dislike in their country– the swing to socialism in the last decade; Chavez’s alliance with Fidel Castro; the stifling of private industry; and an increasingly authoritarian political system. So it is impossible in Caracas opposition circles to have any sort of rational conversation about Cuba — everything is seen through the perspective of Chavez. You like anything about Cuba, you think there’s any merit in anything on the island like its health or education services, then you’re ‘comunista’.
For diehard “Chavistas”, it’s precisely the opposite. Cuba’s free health and school services, its record on sending volunteers around the world, and its thousands of workers in Venezuela, are to them a model of south-south cooperation. You think Fidel Castro failed to carry through the ideals of his revolution, turned the island into a dictatorship? You’re obviously a Yankee agent.
Yet one also gets the impression that many in the Chavista rank-and-file, while loyal to their man, are slightly embarrassed by the Cuba connection. Certainly the applause is getting lighter every time Chavez stops a speech to salute Fidel and the Cuban revolution. They love Chavez, but they don’t want Venezuela to turn into Cuba.
Chavez famously said in the past Venezuela was heading towards the same “sea of happiness” as Cuba, and President Raul Castro said this month that the two nations were now “the same thing”, united forever.
But beyond the rhetoric, just how close a path to Cuba is Venezuela taking? Does it pose dangers, as a retired Venezuelan general told Reuters this week. Or does the model bring tangible benefits, such as cheap food like Venezuelans enjoy in their “Socialist Arepera”?
As someone who has lived for lengthy periods in both nations, believe me, there are no trite or easy answers! The new “Socialism or Death!” banners in Venezuela certainly remind me of Havana, while the political structure seems to be leaning ever more closely to the Cuban model. The nationalizations in Venezuela have, of course, been reminiscent of those after the 1959 Cuban revolution, but not as sweeping and sudden in their scope. And there’s no escaping the fact that Venezuela remains, in many ways, a deeply capitalist society – even among high-ranking Chavez officials, who have flourished in banking, food, construction and other businesses.
Then there’s the media. While Chavez has certainly taken a tough line on private media, every day brings a new torrent of criticism and mockery against him in newspapers and on airwaves.
So while Chavez has undoubtedly inherited Fidel Castro’s mantle as the main rhetorical thorn in Washington’s side, Venezuela has not yet metamorphosed into Cuba by a long way. But could it still?
Reuters photographs by Jorge Silva (Caracas poster showing Chavez and Castro, Chavez arrives at military parade April 13, 2010)