CubaNews / September 2006
By Larry Luxner
Despite their obvious differences in size and population, Cuba and Venezuela have forged a friendship unlike any other in Latin America. Both countries—burdened by a long history of poverty and corruption — are today run by anti-American revolutionaries bent on exporting their brand of socialism throughout the world.
And that doesn't make the Bush administration very happy.
On Aug. 18, the White House announced the creation of a CIA mission specifically for Cuba and Venezuela. The move came only three weeks after Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raúl after surgery for an intestinal ailment — and less than four months before Venezuela’s presidential elections scheduled for Dec. 3.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, 52, was the only foreign head of state to meet with Castro, 80, following the surgery, and photographs of the two presidents in the recovery room were widely distributed throughout the world.
"President Chávez has made it a point to try to develop a very closer relationship with Fidel Castro," said State Department spokes-man Sean McCormack at an Aug. 22 press briefing. "I'm not sure that that's something that really burnishes his democratic credentials, but that's his decision to make."
Venezuela is already one of Cuba's top trading partners. Under an agreement personally signed by Chávez and Castro, state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) sells 98,000 barrels of crude oil a day to Cuba under extremely preferential terms.
In addition, PDVSA has signed an accord with the Cuban government to drill for oil. It is already investing $83 million to rehabilitate the Soviet-designed oil refinery in Cienfuegos, along Cuba's southern coast (see CubaNews, June 2006, page 2).
The goal is to build a pipeline that will take as much as 120,000 barrels per day of oil products to a 600,000-barrel storage terminal on the island's northwest. That terminal is to be the linchpin of Chávez's Petrocaribe project to provide fuel to Cuba and throughout the Caribbean at discounted prices.
Venezuelan oil is literally keeping the Cu-ban economy afloat, much to the disappointment of White House officials who would like to see Cuba’s 11 million people rise up against the Castro regime.
That's mainly why the Bush administration has created the new intelligence post for Cuba and Venezuela, putting the two on equal footing with North Korea and Iran — the only other countries with such managers.
J. Patrick Maher, a 32-year veteran of the CIA, was named acting mission manager of the new post by John Negroponte, director of national intelligence.
According to a press release issued by the directorate, Maher will be responsible for integrating collection and analysis on Cuba and Venezuela across the intelligence community, identifying and filling gaps in intelligence and ensuring the implementation of strategies, among other duties.
"Such efforts are critical today, as policymakers have increasingly focused on the challenges that Cuba and Venezuela pose to American foreign policy,” Negroponte said in a press statement. "In this light, the mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela will be responsible for ensuring that policymakers have a full range of timely and accurate intelligence on which to base their decisions."
Reacting to the administration's decision, Jesse Chacón, Venezuela's minister of interior and justice, said the development could prompt a "re-evaluation of the accords we might sign with the United States" — particularly a joint effort at fighting drug trafficking.
Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, says this is all part of a deliberate campaign by Washington to paint Chávez as the region's new bad boy.
"The Bush administration must give up all these crazy thoughts of regime change. These right-wingers must drop their Cold War mentality and understand that there is a political process in Venezuela," Alvarez told CubaNews. "The United States is trying to go around Latin America saying Venezuela is a bad influence. They've created this person who is apparently behind everything that happens in the hemisphere."
Alvarez added: "Our first and main interest is to reduce poverty and inequality. For the first time, we've directed a very significant percentage of our oil revenue into social programs, including a program to eradicate illiteracy and supply subsidized food to Venezuela's poor.
"We've also had a program to enroll 300,000 Venezuelans to attend primary and high school. There's also a program, with Cuba's help, to provide basic health care and free medicine to at least 17 million Venezuelans."
Alvarez estimated that some 25,000 Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela.
Brian Latell, a former CIA Cuba analyst who previously held Maher's current job, said it's difficult to overstate the strong bonds between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
"These two countries are closely linked, given Chávez's almost filial relationship with Fidel," Latell told CubaNews. "Chávez is subsidizing the Cuban economy to the tune of $2.5 billion a year. They're practically joined at the hip and they're high priorities for the intelligence community, so I don't find this announcement particularly surprising."
Yet whether this strong bilateral bond can outlive Fidel is another question.
"I'm hearing from quite a few people that Raúl simply does not have a relationship with Chávez even resembling Fidel's," Latell said. "It's not going to be the same, but that's an awfully big subsidy. It just can't be minimized. It's a lot of money Chávez is pumping into Cuba, and the Cubans are not providing an awful lot in return."