Cuban concerns over Venezuela’s economic woes
By Will Grant
Cuba correspondent, BBC News
11 March 2016
“Viva Cienfuegos! Viva the refinery! Viva Fidel!” shouted Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez into the microphone.
It was December 2007.
A lean, upbeat President Chavez was at the height of his powers. Dressed
in his traditional red guayabera, he was in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos
to inaugurate a refurbished oil refinery, a joint venture between Cuba
The socialist leader heralded the energy project as the jewel in the
crown of their bilateral relationship, and testament to his close
personal friendship with Fidel Castro.
Almost nine years on, many Chavez supporters miss those halcyon days.
The oil price was above $100 a barrel and the charismatic leader was
untouchable at the polls. There seemed to be no end to his largesse,
with the profits from the country’s vast oil wealth shared among
left-wing allies in the region.
The defining policy of the Chavez-Fidel era was the “oil-for-doctors”
programme: Cuba receives about 100,000 barrels of oil a day from
Venezuela in exchange for sending doctors and nurses to work in
Venezuelan shanty towns and rural villages.
Under the scheme, Venezuelan medical students can also study in Cuba for
During breaks from their rounds, anaesthetists Jose Martin Castillo and
Carlos Flores often take a little air by walking down the Avenida de los
Presidentes in Havana and sitting by the statue of Simon Bolivar, the
hero of independence in Venezuela and several other South American
Both committed “Chavistas” from poor neighbourhoods in Venezuela, they
first came to Cuba to study medicine a few years ago and are now back
for their clinical training. They remain firm supporters of the late
president and are thankful for what the oil-funded medical programme has
allowed them to achieve.
“We’re both still ‘Chavistas’ because Chavez was the people, he was part
of every one of us,” explains Dr Castillo.
Feeling the pinch
But today, Hugo Chavez is gone, his life cut short by cancer. His
successor, Nicolas Maduro, is facing the biggest challenge of his
The Venezuelan oil basket is languishing at about $20-25 a barrel and
the country’s economy is in deep trouble. The opposition has also just
retaken the national assembly in Caracas with an overwhelming majority.
The medical students have noticed the pinch.
“In Venezuela, they told us we’d get a stipend of $200 a month. I’ve
been here for five months and am yet to receive a single payment,”
explains Dr Flores. “What has happened to that money that the
comandante, President Nicolas Maduro, has already approved? Who is
diverting those funds?” he asks, the frustration etched onto his face.
They are quick to thank their Cuban teachers for the “solidarity”
they’ve received in Havana and are fulsome in their praise of the Cuban
Health Ministry, describing their accommodation and teaching as “of a
first world standard”.
But the word the two say best defines their circumstances is “uncertainty”.
“We’ve heard the president say that they’re going to maintain the social
missions, especially in health. But it’s unclear as we don’t have a
piece of paper which says we’re going to continue [our studies in Cuba]
for the next four years,” says Dr Flores.
“Even if we pass our tests for this year, we don’t know what will happen
next year – whether the opposition which took over the assembly will try
to shut these programmes down.”
The men also fear that in a worst-case scenario, eventually there will
be no programme of Cuban healthcare in the Venezuelan shanty towns.
Such is the concern in Havana about Venezuela’s economic malaise and
changing political landscape that the Venezuelan Ambassador to Cuba, Ali
Rodriguez Araque, appeared on Cuban state television in January to calm
“Let’s not forget that the Venezuelan opposition is not just the
opposition,” he told viewers of Mesa Redonda, a well-known political
discussion programme in Cuba.
“Behind them there is a great power, both economic and political,”
referring to the Maduro administration’s oft-quoted claim that the hand
of Washington is behind the crisis by waging a form of “economic war” on
Their ultimate goal, he argued, is to knock Nicolas Maduro from power.
The ambassador also tried to assuage ordinary Cubans’ concerns about the
economic health of their long-term benefactor.
The lower oil price “doesn’t necessarily mean ruin for the country”, he
said, although he admitted it would “slow down” the provision of social
International health services are now thought to be Cuba’s biggest
export. What if Venezuela simply can’t bankroll the healthcare
programmes any more?
“That I would say is the biggest problem that they now face,” says
Ricardo Torres, an economist at the Centre for the Study of the Cuban
“It’s not that they lack the will to maintain those programmes. But at
some point they won’t have the money to continue that funding.”
But he thinks the links between the socialist allies will withstand the
current economic woes and points out that the bilateral relationship
goes beyond the purely economic.
“On the Cuban side, my guess is that even if Venezuela at some point is
not able to fund the provision of those social services by the Cubans in
Venezuela any more, the Cuban government will continue providing those
“I don’t see any big disruption in the links at this time.”
Cuba hasn’t said anything about the future of the bilateral healthcare
arrangement so far, but it would stand to reason that they would keep
sending doctors – at least for now.
For a long time, the price of the oil they were receiving was much
higher than the cost of the services they were sending. Now it seems
things are evening out a bit. And in purely symbolic terms, it would
look bad for both sides for the measure to suddenly be stopped.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s economic lifeline was
suddenly cut, leading to blackouts, and food and fuel shortages
The system’s survival owes much to Hugo Chavez and his support
Under the arrangement, Cuba received about two-thirds of its oil from
Venezuela, paying for it with the services of thousands of
state-employed doctors, sports trainers and military advisers
For many years, with oil at a high price, it was thought that Cuba had
benefited most financially. But now, the oil price may not fully cover
the cost of its medics bringing healthcare to poor, remote areas of
Still, Cuba is widening its list of economic partners beyond Venezuela.
The island has just renegotiated billions of dollars of debt with the
Paris Club group of creditor nations and with Russia. Plus, of course,
relations with Washington are moving forward at pace, with an historic
visit from President Obama just weeks away.
Meanwhile Dr Flores and Dr Castillo, the Venezuelan anaesthetists in
Havana, say that they will simply dedicate themselves to their studies,
to fulfil Hugo Chavez’s vision of thousands of Cuban-trained medics
working in low-income neighbourhoods in Venezuela.
Despite their precarious situation, they say they are still the lucky ones.
“The matriculation for specialists here in Cuba starts in September.
There are Venezuelan medical students approved to come here who still
haven’t arrived today,” says Dr Flores.
“The Health Ministry of Venezuela has said that there isn’t enough money
to send them.
“They’re missing courses, missing out on teaching, losing valuable time.
It’s a waste.”
Source: Cuban concerns over Venezuela’s economic woes – BBC News –