The Changing of the Guard
How do you see Cuba's ties to Venezuela?
In Venezuela a revolution is going on. No doubt about that. Chávez gained power in a different manner than Fidel, but the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela have the same strategic and historical goals.
Relations between Venezuela and Cuba go beyond mere political rhetoric. There is an important economic dimension, as determined by the Cuba-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission in February. We reached agreements to develop 355 bilateral projects--totaling $1.5 billion.
Chávez certainly seems to regard Fidel as having blazed the trail for socialist development in Latin America.
Hugo Chávez is one of Fidel's sons. He, like Fidel, sees himself in the long line of revolutionaries beginning with Bolívar. The alliance is between two nations whose people are somewhat similar, especially those who descended from African slaves and colonizers. Cuban doctors and other medical professionals have served needs in Venezuela, and Chávez's investment in Cuba has helped the Cuban economy. It augurs well for Cuba's future, as does Chinese investment, which is relatively new.
Venezuela's support ended Cuba's foreign exchange crisis. There are other factors--tourism has recovered, nickel prices tripled last year--but Venezuelan oil is the most important. In Cuba, the result is fewer blackouts and some public investment in clinics and hospitals. But it's not clear that the Cuban public appreciates it; many family doctors have been uprooted for international missions, and Venezuela gets the blame.
Obviously, Venezuela plays a critical role in the Cuban economy today, not only through its oil sales but through its investments in the Cuban energy sector and purchases of Cuban services, all of which have contributed enormously to Cuba's strong economic performance over the last two years. It should be noted that while for Chávez this is an alliance of ideology, for the Cubans it is an alliance first of convenience. Many Cubans cannot help but suspect that the Chávez story will end up badly. This is one reason Cuba has brought in China, India, Norway and Spain to help it find oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This seems to them a wiser course than counting on Venezuela's largesse to continue forever.
Given the changes in the region, Cuba seems to have a new confidence in its perspective toward the United States. What does the Cuban government want from the United States, if anything?
What Cuba wants in its relations with the United States is simple and straightforward: the requisite respect for our independence as a nation, our territorial integrity and the sovereign will of the Cuban people to decide on their own political, economic and social system. We see no other viable option but the normalization of official relations between both nations.
But it would require the United States to cease a number of hostile activities in which it is currently engaged: to stop encouraging, financing and organizing the so-called "dissidents" on the island and to put a stop to those in the exile community who continue to plan terrorist actions against Cuba. In the cause of countering terrorism, Cuba would welcome the release of the five Cubans jailed in the United States because of their vigilant investigation of those very exile groups in Florida that have supported campaigns of terror against the Cuban people [see Peter Kornbluh, "Terror and the Counterterrorists," page 20].
There are many areas of bilateral collaboration that could benefit both of our countries: The fight against drug traffickers, which is currently limited to ad hoc actions because of Washington's refusal to establish a permanent agreement with Cuba; ending the illegal trafficking of human beings, which is actually promoted by the Cuban Adjustment Act (which should be repealed), and the policy of accepting Cubans if they reach US shores (which should also be eliminated); increased contact between family members living in one or the other country, who are affected by visa difficulties and obstacles to communication; allowing for unrestricted scientific, cultural and sports exchanges, virtually nonexistent today as a result of travel restrictions imposed by Washington.
I agree with Ramón: What Cuba wants from the United States today is what Cuba has wanted from the United States since January 1, 1959--a relationship of equality based on respect for Cuba's national sovereignty and independence, not a restoration of Washington's neocolonial dominance. Normal relations with the United States would benefit the Cuban economy tremendously, of course, and Raul Castro has said several times in recent months, most recently in a speech on December 2, that Cuba is willing to talk with Washington about improving relations. But Cuba has survived almost half a century in the face of US hostility, and as Fidel has often said, it can survive for decades more if necessary.
A few years ago, Cuba decided it had bigger fish to fry. From Cuba's point of view, the Bush Administration's position was clear, and Congress was not able to force a change in policy. So why not pay attention to relationships that pay political and economic dividends: China, Venezuela, the nonaligned movement, Cuba's worldwide medical diplomacy and so on.
Of course, Cuban officials would like to see the economic sanctions dropped, but they understand the US political system well enough to know that as long as Fidel is alive this is unlikely to happen, for reasons having to do not with the US national interest but with US domestic politics, mainly, the key place of Florida in presidential elections and the vital role still played in that state by the exile hard-liners. The Cubans, of course, continue to work for a lifting of the embargo, but they do this not because they expect the United States will respond positively but because in doing so they embarrass the Administration at the international level. And in the meantime, they are hoping, fairly confidently, that with the new investment from China and Venezuela and some success in oil exploration over the next three years, they will manage to do fine, or at least well enough to outlast yet another US Administration.
In many conversations I have had with Fidel since the 1970s, he has had the approach of "look at the map." The two countries are geographically fated. So, yes, the majority of the Central Committee sees an inevitable relationship. But Cuba has learned painfully that it can't give anything away. Reciprocity is the key to its diplomacy. Need is not the question after forty-eight-plus years of survival without US relations.
In 1960 I was at a forum in Havana where a US student posed this question to Che Guevara: "What would you like the US to do in your fondest dreams?"
"Disappear," said Che.
The student looked hurt.
"Hey," said Che. "I'm kidding!"