For much of the world, Fidel Castro leaves a legacy as an exalted revolutionary, perhaps nowhere more so than in Venezuela.
The two countries have been close ideologically for much of the last 20 years, and Castro’s Cuba has loomed large on Venezuela’s socialist landscape.
In the wake of Fidel’s death, however, Cuba and Venezuela’s closeness may become more about the two regimes’ political survival rather than the revolutionary socialist fervor frequently invoked by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the two Venezuelan presidents who have drawn their country close to Cuba.
“Fidel had a huge, sort of towering role in Venezuela, especially through Chavez,” Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider.
“Chavez and Fidel not only had a very strong personal relationship going back to the 1990s,” after Chavez was released from jail for leading a coup attempt in 1992, Velasco said. “But they in some ways understood that each other’s power rested on the charisma that each could deploy, and did deploy.”
“To me, Fidel is a father, a companion, a teacher of perfect strategy,” Chavez said to Cuban newspaper Granma in 2005.
Relations between the two countries quickly expanded beyond ideology. In 2000, Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves on earth, started sending about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island nation to bolster its economy in the post-Soviet era.
In return, Cuba supplied Venezuela with extensive support, ranging from military advisers to thousands of doctors who continue to staff Mision Barrio Adentro, a healthcare and social-welfare program serving Venezuela’s poor and marginalized communities.
The Venezuela-Cuba relationship saw something of a chill in the aftermath of Chavez’s death from cancer in 2013.
The emergence of this divergence had much to do with the more distant relationship between Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, and Raul Castro, who officially took over the Cuban presidency in 2008, when his brother stepped down.
“To some extent Maduro and Raul bear the same kind of burden that Fidel and Chavez didn’t have, which is to say they both succeed incredibly charismatic, iconic figures within their countries and continentally,” Velasco told Business Insider.
With Chavez and Fidel now departed, Raul and Maduro are left to confront their respective economic and political challenges without the charisma and popularity of their predecessors, and, as a consequence, largely without the ability to build up and retain support in the way Fidel and Chavez did, Velasco said.
In Venezuela — where the political and social environment is heavily polarised, with the political opposition trying to mount a recall vote to force Maduro from office and the public regularly protesting widespread shortages and rampant insecurity — Maduro has encountered criticism for his encomiums to Fidel.
“Fidel Castro’s death is not on the national agenda,” Caracas-based political analyst Gabriel Reyes told the Miami Herald. “It’s definitely not more important than the hunger and devaluation that we’re suffering through.”
“Death is painful but don’t impose [national] mourning for a dictator,” said Henrique Capriles, governor of Venezuela’s Miranda state, who ran against Maduro for the presidency in 2013.
Venezuelans “are, by and large, indifferent,” writes Venezuelan professor Miguel Angel Latouche.
On Venezuela’s streets, he writes, “nobody is demonstrating. Not for, and not against, the dead Cuban leader.”
Venezuelan appreciation of Cuba’s role in many of the country’s social programs appears to have curdled somewhat as well.
“The actual sort of day-to-day way in which people in Venezuela have sort of seen the Cuban influence even beyond Fidel is through programs like the Mision Barrio Adentro,” Velasco said.
“What I have seen … is that even those programs have lost a tremendous degree of prestige among” among the public, as Venezuelans have come to see the revolutionary devotion espoused by many Cubans in Venezuela to be somewhat hollow, Velasco, author of “Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela,” added.
“Castro’s death, I think what it does is primarily it robs … Maduro of a kind of iconic figure that he could turn to, even if the actual level of support that he received from Fidel was very minimal,” Velasco said.
In Cuba, too, signs of cooling ardor for Venezuela and their common revolutionary mission have emerged. Raul Castro’s assumption of the presidency allowed him to pursue a change in course
It’s unlikely Raul will diverge too far from his brother’s strongman style of governance, opting to pursue expanded economic relations with the outside world while maintain control of democratic expression at home.
But Raul’s 2014 opening to the US, orchestrated in concert with President Barack Obama, indicated space had opened between Caracas and Havana.
Many Cubans have expressed affection for Fidel but are also looking more to the outside world, in a change of mood that may see cooling relations with Venezuela.
“Raul wants to do business, that’s it. Fidel was still holed up in the Sierra Maestra,” Belkis Bejarano, a 65-year-old homemaker in central Havana, told the Associated Press.
“Fidel’s ideas are still valid,” Edgardo Casals, a 32-year-old sculptor in Cuba, told the AP. “But we can’t look back even for a second. We have to find our own way. We have to look toward the future, which is ours, the younger generations.'”
Venezuela looks set to remain mired in crisis, with its public indifferent or hostile to Cuba’s influence in the country, while Cuba enters a post-Fidel era with its leadership and public looking for better relations with the rest of the world.
Raul Castro is slated to step down in 2018, handing power to Miguel Diaz-Canel, a Communist Party leader outside of the Castro generation who has proposed some reforms but remains a question mark. (But, since Cuba relies on Venezuela’s oil, its unlikely there will be complete break between Caracas and Havana).
That separation is not a certainty, and with many other matters in Latin America, the US may shape the direction of things to come.
Venezuela’s leadership has fractious relations with the US that look unlikely to improve, and Cuba, on better terms with Washington now, may see that undone by Donald Trump’s election. Venezuela already has a deeply antagonistic relationship with Washington, and more hostility from the White House may cause Havana to reaffirm ties to Caracas — albeit ones that are more top heavy, based on international political expediency.
In Venezuela, “at this point it’s really just a matter of survival of a particular kind of bureaucratic elite, and they just kind of feel that they can’t lose power or else they might be jailed or worse,” Velasco told Business Insider.
“So I think that if there is a kind of return to closer ties” between Caracas and Havana, “I don’t think that that’s going to translate into sort of a broad-based popular support, per se, or renewed popular support,” he added. “I think it’s going be far more in terms of political survival of each elite class.”
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