Cuba's Stake in the Chávez Presidency
Deepening privation is making Cubans restless. Oil from Venezuela is
essential to the regime's hold on power.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
All eyes were on the Venezuelan presidential election Sunday on the off
chance that incumbent Hugo Chávez might be forced to accept defeat. But
few could have been watching more intently than the elite of the Cuban
military dictatorship, who in recent years have become heavily dependent
on virtually free Venezuelan oil, courtesy of Mr. Chávez, for its survival.
The day went relatively smoothly despite a heavy turnout that the
Chávez-controlled National Electoral Council seemed ill-prepared to
handle. Some voters claimed to have waited six hours in line but there
was no violence.
It was after 10 p.m. when the CNE emerged to announce that Mr. Chávez
had beaten Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the state of
Miranda. It was hardly surprising given how the cards were stacked
against the challenger, as I explained in this space last week. Yet
despite the Chávez "victory," Cuba still has plenty of reason to worry
about the loss of oil flows. It has been preparing for the possibility
On Thursday, state security detained journalist Yoani Sánchez as she
traveled to the city of Bayamo. Ms. Sánchez was assigned to cover the
trial of Spanish democracy advocate Angel Carromero there for the
Spanish daily El Pais.
Mr. Carromero—who was at the wheel when Cuban human-rights defenders
Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were killed in a car wreck in July on the
eastern end of the island—stands accused of vehicular manslaughter. Payá
was a popular and charismatic leader of Cuba's growing dissident
movement, and after the crash rumors were flying that the Spaniard's
rental car had been forced off the road. If found to be true, it would
badly damage the Castro brothers' attempts to gain legitimacy on the
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Hugo Chávez at a campaign rally, Oct. 3.
The Payá family has called for an independent investigation. The
government has ignored their request. Foreign journalists were allowed
to sit in an adjacent room at the courthouse and watch the Friday
"trial" on closed-circuit television. But secret police kept the Payá
family away from the premises. No verdict has been handed down. Ms.
Sánchez and her husband were released late Friday.
Silencing critics, making examples of meddling foreigners and running
closed, summary trials are nothing new. But Cuba watchers say that as
the dissidents have grown in number and have increasingly learned how to
organize, the regime has been ratcheting up the repression.
The same day Ms. Sánchez was detained the regime also arrested 22
"pro-democracy activists who sought to attend a peaceful gathering in
the town of Santa Clara to discuss a petition titled, 'Citizens' Demand
for Another Cuba,' " according to the website Capitol Hill Cubans. The
arrests are part of a wider assault on government critics, among them
the Ladies in White, who won the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in
Deepening economic privation is making Cubans restless. And that
privation is likely to get worse if Venezuela stops supplying oil to
Cuba. According to Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of
Miami, Mr. Chávez has been sending almost 100,000 barrels of oil a day
to the island. In exchange, Cuba ships doctors and social workers to
Venezuela to serve the poor.
But it is highly doubtful that Venezuela is getting its money's worth.
Mr. Capriles said last week that the 40,000 Cubans that Venezuela
receives have a value of some $800 million per year while the oil sent
to Cuba annually is worth $4 billion. He warned that if elected he would
change the policy. "If we need Cuban doctors, we will pay for them," he
announced. But "we cannot give away" the oil.
Even the "re-elected" Mr. Chávez will be under heavy economic pressure
to revise the terms of the oil-for-doctors exchange, because the gap
between Venezuelan spending and revenues will undoubtedly grow in the
coming year. Roads and bridges are rapidly deteriorating, hospitals are
in disrepair, and public security is almost nonexistent. Analysts expect
a large devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar next year.
Last week the Venezuelan daily El Universal reported that "as many as 80
Cuban physicians have left [Venezuela] on a monthly basis over the last
90 days." The paper also said that this year "the exodus may exceed the
figure recorded in 2011—500 doctors." Yumar Gómez, who now lives in
Miami, is one of them. "Let me tell you this," Mr. Gómez told El
Universal, "many do not want to return to Cuba."
In a 2010 paper for the Cato Institute, Ms. Sánchez wrote: "Now that the
state is out of money and there are no more rights to exchange for
benefits, the demand for freedom is on the rise." No one understands
that better than Raúl Castro, which is why the dictator and his friends
were celebrating the news from Venezuela Sunday night.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com