What’s keeping Cuba’s economy afloat?
BY GARY MARX
HAVANA – In Cuba, the government gives each new year an official moniker.
The first year after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 was aptly named the “Year of Liberation.” The year 1967 was labeled “Heroic Vietnam,” and 2001 the “Victorious Revolution in the New Millennium.”
Cuba’s motto for 2005 was “The Year of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,” an important show of support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s continentwide trade proposal that excludes the United States.
But Cuban officials were doing more than plugging a trade pact. They were paying homage to a leader who is almost single-handedly keeping the island’s economy afloat through huge subsidies.
The entire continent could do the same. Across the Americas, 2005 will be remembered as the year of Hugo Chavez.
Boosted by record oil revenues, boundless energy and an equally charged ambition, the 51-year-old former paratrooper spent much of last year traveling across the region distributing Venezuela’s largess and promoting his leftist ideology.
While Americans were focused on the war in Iraq, Chavez was making clear that he is a force to be reckoned with in the United States’ own back yard.
There was Chavez in November at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, sharing the stage with Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez and other leftist icons as he excoriated the United States and vowed to bury capitalism.
Two months earlier, Chavez traveled to Jamaica, where he entered into a deal to provide about a dozen Caribbean nations with discounted Venezuelan oil to aid their struggling economies.
Last August, the Venezuelan leader – dressed in olive-green fatigues – rode in an open Jeep with Castro through the streets of western Cuba, passing throngs of residents waving Cuban and Venezuelan flags.
Hours later, the two leaders announced plans to sharply expand a program that in 2005 provided more than 120,000 free eye surgeries to poor residents across Latin America and the Caribbean. Bankrolled by Venezuela, the medical program is a vital source of hard currency for Cuba.
Why are Cuba and other countries opening their arms to Chavez? The most obvious reason is that Venezuela is flush with cash, and Chavez is sharing the riches with his neighbors.
Chavez is not only providing Cuba with more than 90,000 barrels of discounted oil a day, he is also expanding and modernizing oil storage, transportation and refining facilities throughout the island.
A key part of the plan is renovating a giant Soviet-era refinery that has been mothballed for years and eventually will supply gasoline and other products to Cuba and other Caribbean nations.
But Chavez’s petrodollars would carry less weight if Latin American countries were not mired in poverty, more than a decade after Washington-backed neoliberal reforms began to sweep across the region.
His simple call for Latin American unity also strikes a chord in a region that has often felt at the mercy of the United States and buffeted by global economic forces beyond its control.
Taking a page straight from Castro’s playbook, Chavez’s anti-Americanism plays well on a continent where President Bush is roundly disliked and the Iraq war is widely considered just another American power play.
Chavez has even taken his campaign to the United States, where critics say he is trying to curry favor with Americans and needle Bush by providing cheap heating oil to poor U.S. communities such as the Bronx.
Not all Latin Americans are enamored of Chavez. Some see the Venezuelan leader as a populist demagogue. Others say his commitment to democracy is skin-deep and fear he is steering Venezuela to authoritarianism. Some leaders cringe at Chavez’s shrill denunciations of Bush and believe it is in their country’s interest to work with the United States.
Even many Cubans resent their nation’s growing ties to Venezuela, symbolized by a new billboard outside Havana airport’s Terminal 2 featuring portraits of Jose Marti, Cuba’s venerated independence hero, alongside Venezuela’s 19th Century liberation hero, Simon Bolivar.
Last year, thousands of Venezuelans received free medical treatment in Cuba even as Cubans complained that their own care is declining because Castro has sent many of the island’s best doctors to Venezuela.
“Cubans say that they treat us better than they treat them,” said Lucy Rangel, 40, who was among scores of Venezuelans staying at a Havana waterfront hotel awaiting medical care.
Yet it’s unlikely that Chavez will slow down in 2006 despite the risk of a backlash.
He’s favored to easily win re-election to another 6-year term later this year. Barring an electoral upset, a steep drop in oil prices is the only factor that could derail his continent-size ambitions.
Few experts believe that will happen.