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The Cuban Connection

I don’t know whether to call you brother or father,” Hugo Chávez wrote to Fidel Castro one evening after receiving a handwritten note from him—several pages crammed on both sides with advice. Chávez told Aleida Guevara, a pediatrician who is the daughter of Che Guevara, about the correspondence when she interviewed him in 2003 (no uncomfortable questions were asked).* Fidel, Chávez went on to say, has great influence on him: he is always after him about his diet, and then takes himself to task about the shipments of Cuban ice cream—an excellent product—that he fondly sends to his protégé. Fidel watches over him in other ways as well: the older man seems to have convinced Chávez that “they”—the referent is unclear—are out to kill him, so that now the Venezuelan is rarely seen in public. The two are on the phone constantly, and there have been a half-dozen state visits in the last six years, causing mem-bers of the Bush administration to mutter darkly about the new Cuba– Venezuela axis.

Since October 2000, Cuba has obtained oil from Venezuela, at market prices but on very easy credit—90,000 barrels per day this year. Since 2001, Venezuela has also paid hard cash for Cuban goods and services—everything from prefab housing to sports trainers. But the personal bond between the two men was not always so strong; when Chávez staged his failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, for example, Fidel came immediately to the defense of his old friend “CAP,” who had established normal relations with Cuba in defiance of US wishes, and set up daily flights between Havana and Caracas.

In 2003, at a time when Chávez was in deep political trouble—the GDP was shrinking by nearly 8 percent, after having shrunk 9 percent the year before, his ratings were sinking, and the opposition was in the process of gathering signatures for the referendum against him—he turned to Fidel for help. Fidel agreed to provide Chávez with nearly 30,000 internacio-nalistas: doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, sports coaches, trainers, teachers, and literacy experts—that is, with the staff and administrative and planning expertise that has allowed Chávez to constantly expand the misiones, and to ensure his popularity with the great majority of the elec-torate who are poor. In exchange, he helps an old man, who after forty-six years is still unwilling to give up power, shore up his moribund regime.

The most numerous internaciona-listas are the doctors, but I had no luck in finding one to talk to: they avoid the press. But I did enjoy a long chat with a Cuban friend living in Venezuela, whose two cousins are doctors outside Caracas. They work for the Misión Barrio Adentro, which has provided health care within easy walking distance to nearly every poor neighborhood in the country. The terms under which Cuban internacionalistas set out abroad, I gathered, have not changed much in the two decades or so since the island’s professionals and trained technicians became an exportable commodity. My friend’s cousins typically had to leave their families behind in Cuba, and were not allowed a visit back home during the two to three years that their contract lasted. In addition to meals and living quarters provided by the community, or, even better, housing in one of the small brick home/ clinic modules now visible all around Caracas, they received $200 a month from the Venezuelan government. An additional $100 was deposited monthly into a bank account in their name in Cuba. (The minimum monthly wage in Venezuela is about $189. In Cuba, doctors make around $15 a month, but they are rarely allowed to emigrate.) Reportedly, incentives for internacionalistas to remain in Venezuela for the optional third year in their tour of duty have been substantially increased in recent months.

Years ago, people used to volunteer abroad out of idealism,” my Cuban friend said, “but nowadays our main goal is to carry.” Cuban returnees show up for the flight home weighed down with computers, whiskey, blenders, disposable batteries, tennis shoes, and whatever else they have been able to save for. “Sometimes,” she added, “a friend in the consulate will send out the word that a charter plane bringing some important person is going to head back to Cuba empty. You should see the airport then! We pack tampons and candy bars into shoes, shoes into refrigerators! And the airline delivers all the voluntarios‘ shipments customs-free.”

The Cuban voluntarios‘ motives may be selfish, but the consensus in the barrios seems to be that the doctors are hard-working and competent. Indeed, they are well loved. Teodoro Petkoff told me that one recent evening he had climbed into a taxi driven by a loquacious man who greeted him with a “What’s up, Petkoff?” in an unmistakable accent. Yes, he was Cuban, the cheerful man said; he was one of the misión doctors. He loved his work, his life, his patients in Venezuela. So why the taxi? “Well, chico, you know, my neighbors are fond of me too. One of them lets me drive his taxi on his nights off so I can pick up a little extra money.”

All in all, it would be hard to say which of the two partners gets more out of the internacionalistas‘ invaluable time: Venezuelan oil helps Castro hold on to power a little longer, and the Cubans and the misiones save Chávez from having to deal with any institutions other than the ones he’s created, while he takes all the credit. He pays the highest price though, not because the Bush administration gets into a lather over the Cubans—Chávez, who was trained for war, has a fierce appetite for confrontation, if not for combat—but because members of his own high command do, and make it known. In July, the defense minister publicly deprecated the importance of the decision to baptize as the “Promoción Fidel Castro” the graduating class of military cadets.

Nor can it be an easy friendship: both men like to address their interlocutors for hours on end, but when the two meet, which one gets to do the talking? And one wonders how thrilled Chávez can remain after the first few lectures on his weight by the overbearing Fidel. The Old Man is getting tiresome, he might think. Wouldn’t it be nice if he left soon?

  1. *

    The interview was published as a book: Chávez, un hombre que anda por ahí (Ocean Press, 2005).

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