Fernando Ravsberg

Billboards in Cuba with photos of Chavez, whose popularity stands in third place behind Fidel and Raul Castro. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

Masses were even held in the Havana Cathedral for the health of Hugo Chavez, who was afflicted with cancer and treated by Cuban doctors.

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.


9 thoughts on “Cuba Exhales after Venezuelan Vote

  • If an American “Chavez” nationalized rich US oil companies, they would soon be poor US oil companies. The Venezuelan economy is in a shambles. Socialism destroys wealth.

  • You write that “most of the criticisms are mostly complaining and seldom offer useful suggestions,” where “useful” is the key word, I think. We could suggest the obvious, that “things could get better for the majority” by ending the 50 plus year blockade, but that wouldn’t be “useful” as we have no immediate way to bring it about.

    In common with all who are under, or have been under, a prolonged siege, you do what is immediately possible to bring relief. I think we need to not lose sight of the overall situation, however.

    People under siege, whether by an army, an economic blockade or living in a ghetto, band together for support and defence against the common enemy.

    That enemy traditionally works to break down this united front by various means, wooing some away by offering preferential immigration treatment as in the case of the siege of Cuba, for instance.

    Propaganda is another key element. In the old days they used megaphones for spreading it. Today, they use the internet and the airwaves – Radio Marti is an obvious example. It’s also why internet access in Cuba is a potential danger, but the downside with not providing it outweighs the risk, I think.

    Subversion – funding malcontents, those resident in the besieged territory, and extremists within the enemy’s territory – is also standard operating procedure in sieges. Historically, they have cut off the hair of traitors or outright executed them. In Cuba, they are given a free ride back home to Havana.

    Extreme deprivation of sustenance – starving people to death – has fallen out of favour in sieges due to better communications that allow the world to see what is taking place – for this reason, but not for humanitarian reasons.

    You note that Cuba offered aid to New Orleans after Katrina. The Americans offered no aid, except at the price of surrender, during the Special Period, despite the horrific stories of what people were forced to eat to stave off starvation. It’s okay to let people starve as long as it doesn’t result in you getting ‘bad press’.

    In place of extreme deprivation, the enemy has a new strategy, best illustrated by a Wikileaks-released cable showing how it is being used by Israel: Israel’s siege of Gaza is directly comparable to the US siege of Cuba, both in practice and duration. Note the use of the word “embargo”.

    “As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to (U.S. embassy economic officers) on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge,”

    US propagandists on this site always minimise the effects of the blockade. It’s obvious why. They also are fond of claiming it’s not a blockade but an embargo with a lot of holes. The “holes” are to avoid a complete humanitarian disaster while the world is watching.

    The new siege strategy was employed in Iraq where the US maintained sanctions against the country for 10 years. There was an elaborate list of items that were allowed to be imported, with many critical medical items excluded.

    Madeleine Albright is on record with her infamous reply to the observation that half a million children in Iraq died due to the sanctions, “We think the price is worth it.”

    To pay for the restricted list of allowed imports, the US instituted its ‘oil for food’ program. Presumably, if Cuba ever discovers a significant amount of oil, the US would be willing to do the same. I noticed it’s oil companies are closely monitoring the action to ensure they will be able to get a piece of it.

    Your suggestion, with one idea for how Cuba can make money by catering to retired Americans, obviously would never be allowed by your government.

    We can help in a number of small ways – vacationing in Cuba, staying for extended periods of time, sending remittances to families you get to know, are some easy ways, even for Americans who can travel via a third country – Canada, the Bahamas and Caribbean countries. Offering support in solidarity with the Cuban people at every opportunity – on this website for instance – has to be good.

    Doing everything you can think of to get the message out in your country directly addresses the key “useful” thing that needs to be done – getting the blockade finally dropped. It’s time to end cold war politics. It’s well past the time.

  • If reasonably priced retirement apartments were available in Cuba I think tens of thousands of Canadians would be interested .

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