Chavez’s Future Means Unknowns for Cuba

As well as for Nicaragua, Bolivia and other ALBA Bloc nations

By Isaac Risco

Medicos cubanos en Venezuela. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES (dpa) — The apparent severity of Hugo Chavez’s illness raises questions about the future of the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)” bloc without the Venezuelan president.

What will happen, for example, with aid to Cuba if Chavez isn’t in power? Explicitly or not, the capitals that are in the Chavez orbit are following with special attention what’s happening these days in his Havana hospital.

Cuba is one of the countries most dependent on Venezuelan cooperation. The government of Raul Castro receives about 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Caracas on highly concessional terms, which Havana in turn pays for primarily through medical services (Cuban bloggers point out that Chavez himself is now one of the thousands of Venezuelans benefited by Cuban medicine).

“Energy integration and the exchange of oil for health and education services between Cuba and Venezuela are the backbone of ALBA,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver in the United States.

Although there has been no official statement released concerning Chavez, the island has closely followed developments since the Venezuelan leader announced last Saturday that he needed to be re-operated on in Havana for cancer that reappeared in his pelvic area.

The fact that state television interrupted its programming to broadcast Chavez’s message live — a rarity on the island — was interpreted as an indication of the importance of what has happened.

The Granma and Juventud Rebelde newspapers, the principal ones on the island, reproduced Chavez’s words in full over the next few days. The Venezuelan leader spoke Saturday for the first time about the possibility of him not remaining in power, pointing to a possible successor as being his vice president, Nicolas Maduro.

The possible stepping down by Chavez “would mark the beginning of a distinct policy on the part of Raul Castro,” said Alfredo, a 36-year-old Havana resident. Otherwise, the eventual disappearance of Venezuela as a trading partner could “throw the island back” to the difficult years of the “Special Period” crisis of the 90s, he said.

ALBA meeting. Photo: Caridad

The disappearance of the Soviet Union, which triggered the “Special Period,” resulted in the painful experience of Cuba losing its main trading partner. The island, which was on the brink of collapse during that time, still hasn’t fully recovered from that crisis and it still needs to restructure its economy.

“With or without Chavez Chavez, Cuba will have to deepen its transition to a mixed economy and open itself up to foreign capital,” speculated Lopez Levy. The “updating” of the Cuban economic model being promoted by Raul Castro in recent years points to the need to diversify the country’s economic sources.

Nevertheless, the island isn’t yet ready for a possible scenario without Chavez. Havana has suffered several setbacks this year with oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and still has ongoing projects underway with Caracas, such as the modernization of a refinery in Cienfuegos Province.

Nicaragua too has shown its concern over Chavez’s illness. The Ortega government has received billions of dollars in aid from Caracas since 2007.

“The permanent absence of Chavez would pose different scenarios, which would all be adverse for Ortega since he’d no longer have in unconditional ally in Venezuela,” said former vice foreign minister and current National Assembly deputy Victor Hugo Tinoco of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) when he spoke to DPA news on Monday.

The big problem for the Ortega government is “Nicaragua’s extreme dependence on Venezuelan cooperation,” he stressed.

Tinoco calculates that the total aid that has been provided to Ortega’s government and managed through private companies to be around $500 million per year.

Chavez, in power in Venezuela since 1999, is the driving force of the left “Bolivarian” bloc in Latin America. Under his influence were born continental forums such as ALBA and more recently CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), bodies that seek to distance the region from Washington’s orbit.

Countries like Bolivia also receive an important political and material support from Caracas.

The unexpected visit on Monday by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to Havana to see Chavez before he undergoes surgery demonstrates the relevance of what could happen with the Venezuelan leader, the leader of a political project heavily influenced by him.

We are talking about a “historic president,” Correa said upon arriving on the island on Monday. Though Caracas has emphasized the continuity of the Bolivarian project, many doubt that a “chavismo” movement without Chavez could continue being the same.