Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has posted Cuban advisors to key government ministries, increasing the concern of the U.S.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
CARACAS - Heightening U.S. concerns, President Hugo Chávez has posted dozens of Havana ''advisors'' to his intelligence services and key ministries, foreign diplomats and former Venezuelan government officials say.
The deployments mark a significant expansion of Cuba's influence over security and government affairs in Venezuela, which already includes an estimated 10,000 Cuban doctors working in poor neighborhoods and scores of sports coaches.
The spreading presence of Cuban advisors has increased U.S. concerns about Chávez, a leftist-populist who considers Cuban leader Fidel Castro a mentor, as well as the expansion of Havana's influence in the region.
''We see a very worrisome spread in Castro's infiltration of Venezuela under Chávez. Cuban advisors are always something more sinister than simple technicians,'' said a State Department official who monitors developments in Venezuela.
Washington's concern was also heightened in March when Venezuela withdrew its military contingent from the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the old School of the Americas, now in Fort Benning, Ga., according to U.S. officials.
Underlining the importance of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, Chávez's brother, Adán, arrived in Havana last month as Caracas' new ambassador.
Former officials of the Chávez government said most of the dozens of Cuban advisors have been spotted at the following government agencies:
• Venezuela's main civilian intelligence agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Preventive Investigations, known by its Spanish acronym, DISIP.
• The Department of Military Intelligence, or DIM.
• The Central Bank.
• The Interior Ministry, in overall charge of domestic affairs.
• The immigration department known as DIEX.
The former officials requested anonymity to protect friends still in the government they said were keeping them informed about the Cubans' presence in Venezuela.
Foreign diplomats in Caracas, whose mission includes monitoring the Cubans, said they had verified with their own contacts in the government that Cuban advisors have been posted at several ministries.
Senior Venezuelan government officials did not respond to repeated Herald requests for comment, but the country's ambassador to Washington recently said that Cubans in Venezuela are mostly engaged in humanitarian activities.
''Don't worry,'' Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera said at the Voice of America, according to Agence France-Presse. ``These people who are there are fundamentally doing social work.''
Chávez opponents allege, however, that the Cuban advisors are here largely to shore up the government's security and intelligence capabilities and guide the development of its leftist and strong anti-American policies.
Roger Noriega, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, recently suggested that Venezuela and Cuba also have created an axis of subversion to destabilize democratic pro-U.S. governments in the region.
''It is fairly apparent that President Chávez does not consider himself the best friend of the United States,'' Noriega said. ``But as for Fidel Castro, it is very clear that he is increasingly active in the region. And this has stirred great concern among Latin American leaders . . . because they understand that he's not committed to the democratic process and may be trying to undermine it in their countries.''
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Peter DeShazo earlier expressed skepticism of the claims that all the Cubans in Venezuela are only engaged in humanitarian activities.
''Some of them are involved in health and education,'' DeShazo said at the Voice of America. ``It's to be hoped that their activities are limited to that.''
Venezuela's close relations with Cuba mark a historic shift in the oil-rich country's foreign relations.
For decades, Venezuela was firmly in the pro-American camp, both in foreign policy and security, with U.S. military and intelligence advisors regularly working closely with their Venezuelan counterparts.
One key factor in Caracas' pro-U.S. stance was its many clashes with Castro in the 1960s and 1970s, when Cuba armed and trained several Venezuelan leftist guerrilla movements. They were eventually crushed by Venezuela's security services -- ironically including several anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
But the anti-Cuban sentiments here began changing with Chávez's election in 1998.
Manuel Heinz, a DISIP chief before Chávez came to power, said Cuba's links to the agency began warming after Chávez's first appointment to head the DISIP stopped cooperating with U.S. and Israeli intelligence services. Jesús Urdaneta, Chávez's first head of the DISIP and a close confidant until 2000, did not respond to Herald requests for an interview. But in a recent book he boasted that he broke links with the CIA and Mossad.
The U.S. version is that Washington trimmed back its cooperation with DISIP in mid-2001 because of its increasing links to Cuban intelligence services.
Cuban officials in Venezuela could not be reached for comment. But in January, Castro hinted that Chávez has turned Venezuela into something more than a friend.
U.S. officials ''are saying that I will die soon and that once the dog is dead the rabies dies,'' Castro said. ``Well, now Venezuela has turned into a dog.''