Foreign Affairs

Hugo Chavez and His Despotic Friends

Hugo Chavez has worked diligently to create friendly contacts between Venezuela and numerous willing, similarly autocratically governed countries. From the start of his presidency in 1999 he has worked to develop especially close relations with Cuba and Fidel Castro with whom he has an extraordinarily close relationship. 

Then came Iran and Chavez’s strong relationship with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was Ahmadinejad who suggested to the Venezuelan president that oil-rich Venezuela had the potential of becoming a major player on the world stage.

In 11 years as president, Mr. Chavez has spent more than 10% of the time visiting foreign countries. In 2003, he was the last foreign leader to visit Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, immediately prior to Iraq’s invasion and liberation. A planned visit to North Korea in 2006 was cancelled owing to worldwide condemnation of Pyongyang’s testing of intercontinental missiles, but Venezuela’s dictator in all but name insists he plans to visit the world’s most isolated nation and its leader Kim Jong Il.

Far reaching investment, military, petroleum and other trade agreements have been signed with Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Libya, Syria, China and Russia. In addition, several Central American and Caribbean countries have received preferential oil pricing deals. 

Only a small percentage of countless agreements have been undertaken much less completed, and it is noteworthy that very few arrangements and deals have been signed with democratic or free market-oriented countries. 

Cubanization of Venezuela

Hugo Chavez’s commitment to the closest possible relations with Cuba was exemplified when he said in April, “I tell you speaking from the heart, I feel like a Cuban, now. I feel like I’m one more Cuban.” That greeting to a Cuban medical team freshly arrived in Caracas came on the heels of retired Venezuelan Army Gen. Antonio Rivero announcing that he resigned from the service primarily because of “the presence and meddling of Cuban soldiers”.

Although the government refuses to divulge the number of Cubans currently living and working in Venezuela, best estimates approximate 50,000. Their presence is felt across the country, starting with Miraflores, the presidential palace, where the third-ranking member of the Cuban hierarchy, Ramiro Valdes, stays when he is in the country. Having fought and ruled with Fidel Castro since 1953, Mr. Valdes is one of three comrades to hold the title Comandante de la Revolucion and is considered Castro’s closest associate. One of his many posts was Interior Minister in 1963, coincidentally or not the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

It is widely understood Ramiro Valdes has the daunting assignment of lifting the Venezuelan government out of debilitating and dysfunctional disorganization, primarily to protect Cuba’s own economic interests. In perhaps the worst economic condition in the 50 years of the Castro regime, Cuba desperately needs to continue receiving 100,000 barrels of oil per day in barter for a variety of Cuban technicians.

Cubans not only comprise medical teams and permeate the ranks of Venezuela’s military, they effectively run the country’s intelligence and security apparatus. Cuban personnel abound in government areas as diverse as public utilities and communications. The men and women from Havana are widely disliked, including by Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa, who has publicly complained about them. His concerns are amplified by all levels of Venezuelan citizens.

Ramiro Valdes has multiple roles. It appears one is to keep a watchful eye and restraining hand on el comandante, Hugo Chavez, a view that corresponds with one of Washington’s most accomplished Cuba watchers. 

Dr. Norman Bailey, who served on President Reagan’s National Security Council and in the office of the Director of National Intelligence of George W. Bush’s Administration, thinks Chavez may not be able to remain in office to run in presidential elections scheduled for 2012. He believes a likely scenario is that Venezuela’s closest allies, Cuba and Iran, “will decide at some point Chavez is hopelessly erratic and expendable. They will find another chavista to lead the country and put Chavez on a plane to Havana. They are not going to give up on Venezuela: the Cuban and Iranian regimes have too much to lose.”

Cellular Cells Countrywide

A heretofore unreported major project is to create a cell system throughout the country, similar to what exists in Cuba, wherein every neighborhood and village has groups of citizens who maintain contact with—keep track of—each other and non-cell neighbors. Cover for the program is given by the ruling PSUV party [Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela] which the cell members serve as nominal party organizers.

The network being established in four states—Merida, Tachira, Trujillo and Zulia—bordering on Colombia is an updated variation on the system developed by communist East Germany for Cuba. Each cell numbers from 7-10 to 25-30 members with 20 individuals the average. Each is a surveillance and communications unit and is connected with neighboring cells, with each member possessing a mobile phone. 

The example of a cell in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s oil capital, shows the system’s well-defined structure. Each cell has its own name, leader and meeting place, together with the names and identification numbers of each member, and each individual’s mobile phone number. There are currently some 34,000 cells, with a target total of 57,475 by the end of 2010, to include more than one million spies in the four states. The program is expanding rapidly throughout the country. 

The community cell system has been the key to the Castro regime’s control of Cuba for the last four decades, allowing the Castros to maintain power during the darkest years following collapse of the Soviet Union. Every Cuban citizen knows that the neighborhood “communications system” means they are under close surveillance. Most important for regime control, is that although citizens know the cells exist, they can never be sure who among them are dedicated cell members. 

The result is that people are effectively rendered zombies, talking solely about mundane subjects even to close friends and family members, as they do not know who has been co-opted by the regime and might report the slightest negative comment, much less more substantive anti-government sentiments or plans, to their cell leader. In the words of one leading observer, “We are becoming a nation of snitches and panderers.’’

If and when the cell system is fully deployed throughout Venezuela, the government and their Cuban cohorts will have a vice-like grip on the entire nation, including most of the opposition. It is unquestionably one of Ramiro Valdes’ key responsibilities.

Hugo and Fidel

The relationship with Fidel Castro is the longest and probably the strongest of all the ties Hugo Chavez has made with regional leaders in both government and non-state organizations like Colombia’s FARC. Among other strong links forged with leaders of many other countries, it is interesting that in recent months Chavez has reinvigorated what had been long-strained relations with outgoing Brazilian President Lula de Silva, simultaneously with establishment of close economic and political ties with Brazil and Iran.

Alliances with Iran, Russia and FARC, the Colombian terrorist group, are both close and dangerous. They deserve special attention and are the subject of the next article.

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