Fifteen thousand Cuban intelligence operatives and ‘military advisers’ bar the path to democracy in Venezuela. Luis Amalgro, Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States, has described them as “an occupation army that teaches to torture, to repress, to do intelligence tasks, civil documentation, migration.”
Former President Chavez brought in the Cubans in 2002, following a failed attempt that year to remove him from power. The role of the Cubans was clear: protect Chavez and his regime from any Venezuelan opposition. Under Chavez’s successor Maduro, some 400 Cuban military advisers are attached to the Presidential guard. Cubans effectively run the Maduro regime’s intelligence services. In the early years of the Chavez regime the Cuban Government established its own Independent Counterintelligence Unit (ICU), which operates within the Venezuelan military intelligence apparatus under full Cuban control. It is responsible for monitoring Venezuelan military officers, advising on promotions, and crushing any dissent within the military. Cuban military advisers also run the President’s ‘war room’, which is responsible for security and seeks to control political dissent.
The Cubans are intimately involved in suppressing the opposition to Maduro’s rule. Cuban operatives actively torture dissidents, in addition to training Venezuelans in torture techniques. The Casla Institute’s report on crimes against humanity in Venezuela documented eleven cases in 2018 where the torturers had a Cuban accent. Moreover, former members of Venezuelan intelligence have confirmed that Cubans play a key role in directing the violent suppression of opposition protests.
Cubans are embedded in key positions throughout the government. These Cuban ‘advisers’ issue orders and Venezuelans who disobey them are dismissed. The Financial Times has reported a Latin American Defence Minister as saying “During a meeting with high-ranking Venezuelan officers we reached several agreements on co-operation and other matters. Then three advisers with a distinctive Cuban accent joined the meeting and proceeded to change all we had agreed. The Venezuelan generals were clearly embarrassed but didn’t say a word… Clearly, the Cubans run the show.”
Cubans supervise the computer systems of the Presidency, the police, security services, and ministries. They control the civil registries so that they can track every citizen. There are also large numbers of Cuban healthcare workers, although total numbers have likely decreased from the reported 30,000 since the programme they were running has largely collapsed. Venezuela reportedly pays $5.4 billion a year to Cuba for these services. As the Cuban doctors themselves are paid next to nothing, this is a huge subsidy for the Cuban regime.
Venezuelan resources are critical, maybe even indispensable, to the survival of the Cuban regime. Trade in goods and services with Venezuela amounted to 20.8% of Cuba’s GDP in 2012. By contrast, trade with Cuba only represents 4% of Venezuela’s GDP, which highlights the asymmetrical nature of the relationship. This relationship is built on a core of subsidised Venezuelan oil, which Cuba receives in far larger quantities than it needs for domestic consumption. Cuba sells the excess oil on the international market, which brings in valuable hard currency. Despite continued sharp falls in Venezuelan oil production, now below 1.3 million barrels per day, Venezuela continues to supply Cuba with around 55,000 barrels of oil per day, costing the country around $1.2 billion per year. That money could be used to import desperately needed medicines instead.
Venezuela has also invested considerable funds in Cuba. As of 2011 the Venezuelan development bank BANDES had invested 70% of its portfolio (over $1.1 billion) in Cuba. Between 2000 and 2011, 370 joint investment projects were launched including a $2 billion investment into Cuban oil refineries.
All this largesse means that Cuba is very dependent on Venezuela to keep its failing economy afloat, and the Castro regime is desperate for the Chavistas to remain in power. As former Chávez ally General Antonio Rivero said when resigned his position in 2010 to denounce the presence of thousands of Cubans in the military, “Cuba wants Chavez to remain in power because he gives them oil.” The road to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela may have to go more through Havana than Caracas. The world should place pressure on Cuba to withdraw its occupation forces and cease obstructing democracy in Venezuela.