HAVANA TIMES — Most Cubans are breathing easier this week. The victory of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela will ensure them a stable supply of oil in exchange for the work of tens of thousands of aid workers from the island who are employed in his health and education programs.
The Cuban greeting to Chavez was written personally by President Raul Castro, noting that: “Your decisive victory ensures the continuity of the struggle for the genuine integration of ‘Our America.’ We reiterate our unwavering solidarity and support.”
But not everyone is happy. Dissidents and exiles see it as a curse that allows the perpetuation of socialism in Cuba. They know that the US economic embargo will never have the impact they seek as long as Havana receives that support.
For the average Cuban, the equation is much simpler. The reelection of Chavez as president of Venezuela means six more years without blackouts, an adversity that everyone remembers from the 1990s, when energy shortages lasted up to eight hours a day.
The 100,000 barrels
When they began announcing the results of the Venezuelan elections, one young Cuban said: “A friend from California called to congratulate me. Laughing, she said she was glad because I could keep sleeping with air conditioning.”
During the days before the election, many of my acquaintances — distrustful of the typical triumphalism of the national media — asked me what I thought would be the Venezuelan election results and the real capacity of Cuba to face a Chavez defeat.
It’s no secret that the country has no capacity for self-sufficiency in oil. It needs the 100,000 barrels a day that come from Venezuela, which is equivalent to the amount of foreign exchange that Cuba couldn’t pay without the work of its aid workers.
It also means a sigh of relief for those same Cuban professionals who go back and forth working in Venezuela earning a share of their salary in foreign currency. This allows them to bring back to the island appliances that they could never have purchased on their normal wages.
A bad memory
Chavez’s victory again dispels the bad memories of the 1990s, when the blackouts were so long that people jokingly refer to “alumbrones” (brief periods when the lights were actually on). Those were exceedingly difficult years for most Cubans given everything they entailed.
The lack of electricity meant no air conditioning or even a fan to cool the hot tropical nights. People camped out on rooftops and sleepless mothers spent their evenings fanning their children to cool them down and to keep the mosquitoes away.
Nor was it possible to enjoy a shower, because in most homes and buildings water was pumped using electric motors. What people had for drinking was served at room temperature, and food rotted in refrigerators that couldn’t keep things cold.
Currently the situation would be even worse, because back in those days, cooking was done using natural gas, kerosene and firewood; but since the “Energy Revolution,” a lot of the appliances that used those old energy sources were changed for ones that use electricity.
A common strategy
Cuba is trying to diversify its international relations, but still no country or group of countries can replace Caracas. In selling its services abroad, Venezuela absorbs 40,000 Cuban aid workers, while all of Africa contracts only 5,000.
But the Venezuela of Chavez is not solely interested in Cuba in the economic field. The Venezuelan government also has a political commitment to regional integration projects in Latin America, which includes Havana and excludes its main enemy: the United States.
Petroleum policies of Caracas that are supportive of the continent have allowed it to create a community of leftist ALBA states — among which Cuba moves like a fish in water — and to also push for broader and more diverse formations such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) and CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).
In fact, relations with Venezuela give Havana a greater presence on the continent thanks to programs such as the “Operacion Milagro” eye surgery program and the “Yo si puedo” literacy method, funded by Venezuela while implemented by Cuban aid workers.