Posted on Thursday, 07.07.11
Chavez's health a concern to Cuban economy, too
By PETER ORSI
HAVANA — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's battle with cancer has high
stakes not only for his country but for Cuba, which relies on its South
American ally for billions of dollars in preferential trade.
If Chavez had to leave power, some Cubans even fear a possible return of
conditions they endured during the 1990s when the disappearance of
subsidies from the Soviet Union brought severe shortages of energy, food
"The outcome (of Chavez's health) will be critical for the Cuban
government and its revolution," said Paul Webster Hare, a lecturer in
international relations at Boston University who was British ambassador
to Cuba in 2001-04 and deputy head of mission in Venezuela in 1994-97.
"If, for whatever reason, Chavez is unable to continue as president and
unable to stand again in 2012, then this is close to a worst-nightmare
scenario for the Cuban government."
Cuba insists it has learned the dangers of depending on others'
largesse, saying its international business dealings today are exchanges
of goods and services rather than simply accepting handouts. Some
experts don't think the trade links would disappear overnight anyway,
and feel a Chavez departure wouldn't be a deadly blow to the island.
"People have been saying that Cuba will collapse for a long time," said
Michael McCarthy, a Venezuela watcher at Johns Hopkins University. "Cuba
will not collapse. They've been through tougher periods."
Ties between Cuba and oil-rich Venezuela have been increasingly close
since Chavez took office in 1999. Long a friend and ideological ally of
Fidel Castro, he has helped Cuba weather Washington's decades-old
embargo designed to isolate the communist government in Havana.
Venezuela provides more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba on
beneficial terms, fueling new power plants that provide a far more
reliable electricity supply than during periods of frequent blackouts in
For its part, Cuba sends brigades of doctors to give free medical care
to the poor in Venezuela, and it provides teachers and technical advisers.
The two countries have teamed up to rehabilitate and modernize the Cuban
port of Cienfuegos, where they jointly administer a refinery. Officials
project its capacity will rise from 65,000 to 150,000 barrels of oil a day.
"The annual Venezuelan input to the Cuban economy is at least $5
billion, meaning it is probably close to half of all hard-currency
earnings of the Cuban economy," Hare said. "By most normal measures,
Cuba is an economic satellite of Venezuela."
By comparison, Soviet subsidies before they ended in 1991 reached an
estimated $4 billion to $5 billion a year, not adjusted for inflation.
A February 2010 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Interests Section in
Cuba, released by WikiLeaks, also noted the potential for tough times in
Cuba: Quoting an unidentified French diplomat, it said any instability
in Venezuela would be a source of "serious concern" in Havana.
Since that cable was written, Cuba has begun implementing a package of
economic openings that President Raul Castro, who frequently emphasizes
self reliance, is betting on to awake the island from financial malaise
and make it self-sustaining.
"The Cubans are marching ahead with a program of economic reform
regardless of what happens with Chavez," McCarthy said.
With those reforms still in their early stages, however, the Venezuelan
relationship is still indispensable for Cuba's economy.
Caracas is even helping Cuba end its dubious status as the only nation
in the Western Hemisphere not connected by fiber optics, helping string
a $70 million undersea cable that arrived earlier this year. Expected to
come online as early as this month, the link will be capable of handling
about 80 million simultaneous phone calls and is projected to increase
Cuba's plodding satellite-based Internet capacity 3,000-fold.
The importance of the ties has ordinary Cubans worried.
"The exchanges between Cuba and Venezuela are very important, so I'm
afraid we could return to the 'special period' of the 1990s when the
U.S.S.R. disappeared," said Mirta Flores, a 50-year-old resident of
Havana. "I don't even want to think about that because it makes me very
upset to remember those times."
Back then store shelves often sat empty, food rations tightened, and
buses and cars disappeared from the streets amid chronic fuel shortages.
Electricity was sometimes on for just a few hours a day. People fried
grapefruit-rind "steaks" as a meat substitute, drank sugar-water for
breakfast, planted small gardens in patios and hitched rides from
cyclists to get to work. Many lost weight or suffered from vitamin
Memories of the "special period" explain why Chavez sent jitters across
Cuba when he announced that he had undergone surgery June 20 to remove a
cancerous tumor from his pelvic region.
Officials say the operation was a success, and Chavez expresses optimism
that continuing treatment will allow him to make a full recovery. But
details on his prognosis and even the type of cancer haven't been
released, leaving his political future under a cloud of doubts.
"Now we Cubans have to be worried because I would say we are utterly
dependent on Chavez," said Rafaela Rojas, a 55-year-old office worker.
"And it's not just Cuba, but other countries as well, and the poor in
Venezuela," she added, referring to the ALBA trade pact between
Venezuela and other nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chavez has even provided discounted heating fuel to poor communities in
the United States.
"If something happens to Chavez, I don't think there's anyone else like
him," Rojas said.
Raul Castro's incipient economic loosening could lead to greater
economic self-reliance, as could untapped offshore oil reserves that are
drawing interest from companies in Spain, China, Russia and other
nations. It remains to be seen whether letting Cubans buy and sell homes
and cars and run small businesses and co-ops will boost the economy, and
any oil bonanza will take years to ramp up.
Yet the socialist system instituted by Fidel Castro has survived time
and again against challenges like a CIA-backed invasion and
assassination plots, the U.S. embargo, near collapse during the "special
period" and Castro's retirement five years ago.
In November, marking the 10th anniversary of the Cuban-Venezuelan oil
pact, Chavez and Raul Castro renewed the agreement for another 10 years.
And last month, just days before Chavez's surgery, Caracas and Havana
signed agreements covering 100 different joint projects with an
estimated value of $1.3 billion.
Even if cancer forces Chavez from office, it seems unlikely those
economic ties would unravel quickly.
"I still expect there to be continuity in the oil policy for some time,"
said McCarthy at Johns Hopkins. "This has been in place for 11 years
now. Even an opposition government (in Venezuela) will have to move
carefully and slowly to reverse these things that have been in place for
a long time."
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Lisa J. Adams
in Mexico City contributed to this report.