Chavez supporters wary of closer ties to Cuba
Perhaps not many of the Venezuelans who drifted from the stadium during
Saturday's 17-6 defeat would have agreed.
But Chavez, a populist one-time coup leader who played first base during
rout, has risked more than sporting pride with his outspoken support for Castro,
who on Monday ended his first state visit to Venezuela in 40 years.
Political analysts said former paratrooper Chavez's unflinching support
Cuba's communist government may have worried many voters in a country that
long had been a moderate, pro-American voice in Latin American politics.
"I believe that in the medium-term Chavez is going to pay a price for this
terms of popularity," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla who now
runs opposition daily TalCual.
In a display of unbridled admiration for Cuba's veteran president, Chavez
showered Castro with honors, decorating him with Venezuela's highest award,
the Order of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's 19th century independence
Challenging what he called U.S. "imperialist" interference in the region,
also signed a deal to finance about $150 million of Cuba's annual oil import bill.
Chavez took office 20 months ago in the world's No. 3 oil exporter with
overwhelming mandate to root out corruption and hike social spending. While
sharing Castro's taste for both fiery revolutionary rhetoric and military uniforms,
Chavez also says he welcomes foreign investment.
Chavez may alienate the United States
Analysts said his brazen defiance of U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba diplomatically
will weaken ties between Venezuela and its biggest oil market. The United States
has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba for 38 years.
"This is going to have a political effect on Chavez's government, but it
he is determined to have a policy which is much more independent with respect
to North America," said Manuel Felipe Sierra, editor of weekly magazine
This was Castro's first state visit to Venezuela since the days immediately
following his 1959 revolution, although he has made several lower-level trips
here. As with Saturday's baseball game, it appeared to be the wily Cuban leader
who emerged with honors from the encounter.
"The real winner is Castro, who gets a beneficial oil deal and manages
the embargo with one of the most influential nations in Latin America," said
Chavez already has boosted Venezuela's regional clout by promising cheap
several South American countries. He has signed 11 bilateral agreements in the
Caribbean and Central America, including Cuba. The promise of cheap
petroleum, at a time when oil is near its highest price in 10 years, has generated
support for Chavez's talk of regional integration.
Chavez, 46, dismissed an outcry from the fragmented opposition, which labeled
the 74-year-old Castro a "tyrant" and said he should not have been allowed to
address Congress last Friday. And Castro's praise for Chavez's "social
revolution" during the speech could have politically harmed his host.
"Castro meddled in domestic Venezuelan politics ... and, of course, that
generates opposition because many people voted against Chavez precisely
because they fear a Cuban (style) regime here," said Petkoff, who has abandoned
his former communist beliefs.
Venezuelans no fans of Cuba
A survey last year by respected pollster Alfredo Keller showed 85 percent
Venezuelans disapproved of the Cuban government. For Keller, the 40 percent
who opposed Chavez in two elections since 1998 strongly rejected Castro's visit.
The other 60 percent, mainly poor, could be swayed either way.
"Venezuelan public opinion buys arguments very easily, it has no capacity
critical analysis," said Keller.
Should Venezuela's terminally disorganized opposition manage to find its
could make good use of Chavez's expensive oil handout to Castro, Keller said.
Amid the congratulatory rhetoric, analysts said Castro had not pushed Chavez
toward the communist style of his own government.
While the Cuban leader repeatedly compared conditions in Venezuela to the
of his own government, he said that times had changed. Castro, who has opened
his own economy to foreign capitalists in recent years, spoke of the possibility
for leftist reform within the framework of the market economy.
"This trip has consolidated an agenda which has been underway for some
that is to hand over the leadership of Latin America's left from Castro ... to
Chavez," said Keller.
Copyright 2000 Reuters.