While there is little doubt that the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is on shaky ground, the Castro brothers in Cuba must be just as nervous. For the past 14 years Venezuela has provided an economic lifeline to the Cuban regime by sending them 120,000 barrels of oil a day – about half of the island’s needs – for no cash down. Without that fuel, valued at some $3.6 billion, Cuba’s fragile economy would come to a screeching halt, much as it did with the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Cuba, in return, has provided the Chávez and Maduro governments with something that on the surface seems to be of far less value: medical doctors, sports trainers and social workers, all of whom have helped set up social programs known as misiones to bring medical, education and social projects to poor areas across the country. The misiones have helped shore up the government support in many places by providing tangible benefits.
But with the doctors and trainers came another key component that is little discussed: Following the 2002 attempted coup d’état against Chávez, he turned most of his intelligence structure under Cuban leadership, and convinced his allies in Bolivia and Ecuador – Evo Morales and Rafael Correa respectively – to do the same. Chávez publicly referred to Fidel Castro as his spiritual “father” and visited the island hundreds of times to seek the advise of his revolutionary elder.
So, when unsure who to trust and caught by surprise by the coup, Chávez turned to the best in the hemisphere at monitoring the internal opposition, stifling dissent and carrying block by block surveillance – the Cubans, who have survived withering economic crisis, mass migrations and a U.S. embargo for 40 years. He was never caught off guard by what was happening on the street again.
Now Cuban advisors work in the very highest echelons of the Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadoran executive offices. Cubans train the president’s elite security team and Cubans are a constant presence. In a significant restructure after the 2002 coup, and the Venezuelan intelligence service was remade into the image of is Cuba's feared G2 Intelligence agency, itself based on former East Germany's Stasi network. Venezuela had never developed a professional internal security apparatus, something the Cuban have perfected.
The Cubans are so ubiquitous in the intelligence and military headquarters in Venezuela that they are now strongly resented by many officers in both sectors, according to sources close to the Venezuelan military.
Chávez made sure Maduro, his hand picked successor, also established close ties to the Cubans. That was one key advantage Maduro has had in the infighting since Chávez’s death. Maduro’s main internal rival, Diosdado Cabello, a former military comrade of Chávez, reportedly deeply dislikes the massive Cuban presence in Venezuela and has few personal ties with the Cuban leadership. The Castro brothers, in turn, distrust Cabello, reportedly viewing Maduro as less astute and savvy politician but one far more loyal than the alternative.
Sources close to the Venezuelan military say that if Maduro falls, regardless of who replaces him, aid to Cuba will be scaled back because of Venezuela’s own dire economic situation. Maduro and Castro brothers need each other now. Maduro is more dependent than ever on the Cuban intelligence services, and the Castro's need Maduro to insure their own economic survival. It will be a win-win or a lose-lose proposition.
Douglas Farah is a national security analyst in Latin America, focusing on corruption, failed states and transnational organized crime. He was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for 20 years and has worked in and followed Venezuela since 1990. He is the president of IBI Consultants and a senior non-resident associate of the Americas Program at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank.