Venezuela's ties to Cuba raise concern
Observers disagree on whether Chavez and Castro's growing alliance
poses a threat to U.S. interests, Venezuela's struggling democracy
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
CARACAS, Venezuela -- In a cinder-block home tucked on a hillside, Dr. Radames Sierra treated a stream of patients suffering from respiratory diseases, hypertension, diabetes and other aliments.
He checked the blood pressure of two elderly women before Marina Mejias brought in her elementary school-age son, Mauricio Gonzalez, who had been feverish and dizzy.
"This is really necessary," Mejias said as she watched Sierra, 31, examine her son with a stethoscope in the western Caracas slum of Nueva Tacagua. "Before we'd have to go a long way to see a doctor."
To residents such as Mejias, it makes no difference that Sierra is not Venezuelan but one of about 10,000 Cubans providing free medical care in slums across this oil-rich but impoverished South American country.
Sierra and his colleagues have joined scores of Cuban sports coaches, literacy trainers and others in Venezuela to help President Hugo Chavez implement social programs crucial to carrying out his self-styled populist revolution.
But critics of the combative and charismatic Venezuelan leader see the growing ties with Cuba through a different lens, charging that Sierra and other Cubans are indoctrinating Venezuelans with communist ideology and are helping Chavez establish a radical, authoritarian regime.
Venezuela's ties to Cuba entered the U.S. presidential campaign last week as Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said Chavez's "close relationship with Fidel Castro has raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic government."
The comment was part of a broader attack that President Bush was not doing enough to support democracy in the region.
Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, also has taken aim at the Venezuela-Cuba alliance, intimating earlier this year that the two countries were attempting to "destabilize" pro-U.S. elected governments in the region. Cuba and Venezuela rejected the charges.
Experts say there is scant evidence to support accusations that either Cuba or Venezuela is meddling in the affairs of other nations. Yet disagreement remains about how serious a threat an alliance between Latin America's two most controversial leaders poses to U.S. interests and to Venezuela's struggling democracy.
Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S.
"Some see this as terribly threatening, but others say that one shouldn't overstate the threat," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
"There are a lot of Cubans in Venezuela, but to characterize the Venezuelan government as a rigid, repressive regime doesn't really fit the reality," he said. "It's a much more chaotic situation."
Twice elected president but locked in a prolonged and sometimes violent political battle, Chavez has expressed profound admiration for Castro, was host of a birthday party for him and once gushed that Cubans on the island were swimming in a "sea of happiness."
The two leaders share an antipathy toward the Bush administration's free-market policies, which are increasingly unpopular across Latin America, and oppose creation of the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Venezuela also is selling Cuba 53,000 barrels of oil a day on favorable terms, helping keep Cuba's economy afloat.
Yet while denouncing U.S. imperialism and "savage capitalism," Chavez says he is a committed democrat who has no intention of turning Venezuela into a one-party state. A poll taken last month showed only 4 percent of Venezuelans support a Cuban-style system for their country.
Chavez has respected private enterprise since taking office in 1999, and he is aggressively courting U.S. and other foreign corporations to invest in Venezuela's oil and natural gas sector, the country's economic engine.
In addition, opposition leaders and local news media openly attack Chavez's policies, something that is unheard of in Cuba, where anti-government demonstrations are non-existent and Castro's decisions are never questioned publicly.
"It's one thing that Chavez loves and admires Fidel and has close relations with Fidel," said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily Tal Cual and one of the few independent voices in Venezuela. "It's another thing [to believe] that this is another Cuba. It's not Cuba."
Ali Rodriguez, president of Venezuela's powerful state oil company and a key government strategist, said there is much to learn from Cuba's experiences in education, health, sports and other areas. But he, too, said that Venezuela is charting its own course as it tries to break from a punishing recession and ease poverty.
"Venezuela has its own reality and must have its own specific processes," Rodriguez said.
But Chavez's critics say the president's sustained efforts to resist a recall referendum on his presidency reflects a broader campaign to cast aside Venezuelan democracy and "Cubanize" the country.
Even experts such as Petkoff who do not subscribe to the theory that Chavez is trying to duplicate Castro's communist system say the Venezuelan leader is acting increasingly like a classic Latin American caudillo--a strongman intolerant of anyone who does not share his often divisive views.
In recent months, Chavez has turned his attacks on the Bush administration, charging that it is trying to topple his government by funding opposition groups and supporting the recall effort. Chavez says the recall move is riddled with fraud and is an attempt by the "oligarchy" to derail his revolution.
"Chavez wants power no matter the cost," said Rafael Alfonzo, an opposition activist who is a leader in the recall campaign. "This is the completion of a totalitarian military regime, and Castro is telling him what to do--to not have an election.
"Elections and revolution are not possible together."
Cuba has long been influential in Venezuela and throughout Latin America because of its place as one of the region's cultural centers. The 1959 triumph of the Castro-led Cuban Revolution also inspired a generation of leftists who hoped through armed struggle to reshape their societies.
Cuba trained and financed guerrilla movements throughout the region, including in Venezuela, where Petkoff and Rodriguez were among a group of rebel fighters.
"Our relationship with Cuba was carnal," Petkoff said.
Powerful ally for Castro
But the armed struggle in Venezuela ended decades ago, and the relationship between Chavez and Castro is based as much on what they can get from each other as on advancing a broader strategic goal, experts say.
In addition to the oil bounty, Castro's alliance with Chavez has given the aging Cuban leader a powerful ally in South America and accelerated Cuba's campaign to break out of its diplomatic isolation.
In return, Castro has embraced Chavez as a fellow revolutionary and boosted the Venezuelan leader's credentials as a spokesman for leftist causes in Latin America and elsewhere.
"He wants to inherit the mantle of Castro," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.
Experts say the Cuban-supported programs--including the medical campaign known as Inside the Barrio--also are popular among the poor and have improved Chavez's poll numbers during his political battle.
Like most Cuban doctors, Sierra lives with a local family in a tough, crime-ridden neighborhood where it is difficult to attract Venezuelan physicians. Some residents said they cannot afford a private doctor and wait weeks for treatment at a public hospital.
But Sierra, who moved here five months ago, is on call 24 hours a day. He is equipped only with a stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff and a cabinet with some antibiotics and other medicines. He said there is nothing political about his presence in Venezuela, where he is expected to remain for two years.
"I don't like politics," said Sierra, who left a wife and 9-year-old daughter in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago. "I'm apolitical. My job is to save lives."
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