More than four decades ago, my friends Sofía Imber and Carlos Rangel took me to meet Rómulo Betancourt. I had told them that he was to me a mythical figure to whom I was especially grateful.
During Betancourt’s constitutional mandate in 1961, when I was a 17-year-old youth, I sought asylum in the Honduran Embassy but, after that country broke relations with Cuba, Venezuela saved our lives because the chargée d’affaires, Josefina Aché, protected us with the Venezuelan flag, under orders — she said — of her nation’s president.
In that single interview we held, Rómulo spoke to me with great contempt about Fidel Castro and told me how the Cuban tried to recruit him for his private battle against the United States, founded, of course, on the anti-American vision that Marxism-Leninism had left in the then very young Comandante.
Betancourt had been a communist in his youth and had rebuked those absurd dogmas. Add to this the fact that he had certain very negative information about Fidel Castro, dating to the late 1940s, from the lips of his Cuban friends Aureliano Sánchez Arango and Raúl Roa.
Both had told him that Fidel was a petty gangster in college, not to be recommended. That extreme description was confirmed by Rómulo Gallegos, the great Venezuelan writer and former president, exiled in Cuba and Mexico after the 1948 military coup. Gallegos had used the young Fidel as the resentful archetype of violent shoot-em-ups in his Cuban novel “The Blade of Grass in the Wind.”
In fact, the character Justo Rigores in that novel is Fidel Castro’s alter ego, while professor Rogelio Lucientes, his noble counterpart, was Raúl Roa himself, who had introduced Gallegos to Castro, not without first vaccinating him against the young man’s noxious characteristics.
How and why Raúl Roa became Fidel Castro’s effective foreign minister years later belongs in the chapter of deep psychopathology in humans, but it was an ideological pivot very hard to justify.
In the end, Betancourt told me that he had felt some satisfaction in flatly denying his help and ideological complicity to the Comandante. The Cubans might have been wrong at that time and idolized Fidel Castro, but the president of Venezuelans would not be bamboozled by a radical fellow embarked on a journey that would cause great hardship to all Latin Americans.
After all, it was the first time in the history of this hemisphere that the leader of a Spanish-American nation took up as his leitmotif a war on the United States, its values, its political organization and the system of a market economy founded on private enterprise.
Venezuela in the crosshairs
What Betancourt couldn’t anticipate was the intensity of the hatred that that failed interview provoked on his interlocutor. From that time on and through much of the 1960s, Fidel Castro did everything he could to destroy the then-incipient Venezuelan democracy and recruit that country for his adventures of imperial conquest in the service of the USSR and for his own glory as the leader of the Third World, up in arms against the United States and the principles of the West. Castro held the leadership and knew how to build a hermetical communist cage but he lacked the huge resources that Venezuela had.
From Havana, with the objective of conquering Venezuela, “the Cubans” propitiated the breakdown on the Democratic Action youth, trained and armed guerrillas, organized landings that brought together Cuban officers and Venezuelan Castroites, and plotted with leftist military officers who were intent on repeating in Venezuela the struggle against Batista, which had consisted in defeating the army and establishing in Cuba a single-party dictatorship patterned after the Soviet regime.
Castro’s project failed, thanks to the Venezuelan armed forces’ will to fight and the decided resistance from Rómulo Betancourt and later Raúl Leoni. So, after the total defeat of the communist insurrection, it was up to Rafael Caldera, the third president in Venezuela’s democracy, to pardon the political prisoners and see some of the former guerrillas turn into true democrats, as did lawyer Américo Martin and others.
In the 1970s, convinced that the guerrilla path would not work in Venezuela and after the resumption of relations between the two countries, Cuba began an effective diplomatic presence, sending first the DGI officer Norberto Hernández Curbelo and later Germán Sánchez Otero. The Cubans established friendly ties with numerous personages in the Venezuelan power structure who never understood that those friendly Cubans were the hardened representatives of a persistent dictatorship that waited to sink its fangs into the jugular of its valuable prey.
Nevertheless, despite the degree of penetration, Cuban diplomacy was unable to detect the 1992 coup attempt in Venezuela, the starting point for Lieut. Col. Hugo Chávez in his country’s political life. So, Fidel Castro was one of the first heads of government to side with Carlos Andrés Pérez and bitterly criticize the putschists, as shown by a telegram that has been preserved since then.
However, in December 1994, Fidel Castro, disgusted because Rafael Caldera in his second term (which had begun in February of that year) had met with opposition leader Jorge Mas Canosa, invited the recently pardoned Hugo Chávez to speak at the University of Havana and treated him like a head of state. This, of course, was contrary to the opinion of José Vicente Rangel, a man close to Cuba who never stopped saying that Chávez was actually a fascist.
There was something to that. At that time in his life, Hugo Chávez was under the influence of radical Peronist Norberto Ceresole, also a Qaddafi ideologue. But, little by little, Fidel Castro persuaded Chávez that the solution to America’s and the world’s problems was not the fascist babble proposed by the Argentinean but the Marxist doctrine and the Leninist modus operandi.
From that first meeting on, Fidel Castro thought that, if Hugo Chávez achieved power, Castro could use Venezuela’s money to continue his struggle against yanqui imperialism and his conquest of the planet, interrupted by the dismantling of communism in eastern Europe and the disappearance of the USSR, resulting from Mikhail Gorbachev’s betrayal of communist ideals. So, he placed the considerable experience of the political operators of the Cuban DGI and the Communist Party’s America Department at the service of the Venezuelan.
Finally, on Dec. 6, 1998, Hugo Chávez, with the help of the Cuban apparatus, which provided him with large sums of money, won the election by an wide margin. Secretly in Cuba, strategists prepared for him a series of briefings on how to govern and stay in power. The strategists were attached to the Cuban Army’s General Staff and the Ministry of the Interior.
Fidel, greatly encouraged because he saw clear skies after the triumph of his friendly disciple, attended some of the briefings and counseled Chávez to act speedily after his inauguration and describe the 1961 Constitution as “moribund.” This, the Venezuelan obeyed strictly when he took the oath of office on Feb. 2, 1999.
In December of that year, a new Constitution was approved that opened the door to immediate re-election, thus fulfilling the first objective of “21st-Century Socialism,” i.e., to extend sine die the permanence in power of the revolutionary leader.
Chávez president, Castro the power behind the throne
Chávez began his mandate by subjecting himself to the constant counseling of Fidel Castro, whom he soon aided generously in economic terms. However, the collaboration between the two countries took a major leap in April 2002, when the Venezuelan Armed Forces, in complicity with political figures and the economic establishment, staged a coup d’état and kept Chávez out of power for 72 hours.
This is not the place to explain what happened, but Chávez regained the presidency almost miraculously and with it the certainty that many of his compatriots were traitors. In the future, he decided, he could count only on the loyalty of the Cuban government, specifically Fidel Castro’s loyalty. During those three days, Castro tried very hard to keep Chávez alive and reinstate him as chief of state.
After that episode, the ties between the two strongmen changed. Fidel achieved total emotional and ideological control over Chávez. The money exacted by Havana — disguised as service charges for health professionals — multiplied progressively. Dozens of commercial activities were conveniently inflated, such as the rental of oil drills to be used in Lake Maracaibo.
The Comandante had found an almost inexhaustible source of financing, as well as a disciple to whom he could entrust the direction of “the struggle against yanqui imperialism,” his life’s objective, because he didn’t much trust the intellectual talents of his brother Raúl, although he didn’t question Raúl’s absolute loyalty.
From that point on, the revolutionary ravings of both strongmen increased and they began to dream about joining both nations. They even created panels of legal experts who studied the means to accomplish the fusion.
In December 2005, Dr. Carlos Lage, the island’s vice president and manager of the Cuban administrative disaster, declared that Cuba had two presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, while engineer Felipe Pérez Roque, the Cuban foreign minister, said during a speech at Caracas’ Teresa Carreño Theater that the two countries would assume the challenge of leading the worldwide struggle for the workers, inasmuch as the Soviet Union had betrayed that objective.
It’s on the basis of those words and that enormous commitment that we can understand the system of alliances weaved by both countries under Castro’s direction.
Chávez escorted his “brother” Mahmoud Ahmadineyad (that’s what he called him), the president of Iran, throughout Latin America and established solid and obscure relations with the FARC narcoterrorists and similar Middle Eastern groups whom he courted by assuming anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli stances.
To Chávez, dragged into Fidel Castro’s anti-U.S. struggle, following the old Soviet prescription contained in the Non-Aligned Movement, which had room for everything, it made no difference to side with an Islamic theocracy or North Korea or Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarussian dictatorship or Colombian guerrillas who directed and operated a huge drug cartel. The only thing that the Cuba-Venezuela tandem demanded from its political partners was that they be decidedly anti-yanqui and engage in an anti-West discourse.
Nevertheless, personal relations between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez were not as good as the Venezuelan believed. To Fidel, Chávez was a vulgar and unctuous person, an “uppity” fellow who pretended to be the Comandante’s equal. Castro rejected Chávez on a human level, even though he knew that Venezuelan aid was vital to the island’s subsistence.
This opinion on Fidel’s part was not new. In 2001, in Ciudad Bolívar, when Venezuelan journalist Isa Dobles, a friend of Castro’s, asked him how he could stand such a dolt, the Comandante answered ruefully: “For Cuba, Isa, I’m willing to make any sacrifice.”
Around that time, desperate because of the constant and insufferable phone calls from Chávez, Fidel Castro made a radical decision: he deflected 90 percent of those calls.
As courteously as he could, he told Chávez that, due to the delicacy of the moment, he would have to transfer his calls and messages to Carlos Lage and Pérez Roque, with instructions that they should take care of him quickly. Both men ended up complaining bitterly about that task.
As is known, in late July 2006, Fidel Castro fell gravely ill with an almost deadly attack of diverticulitis. He did not die until November 2016, a decade later, legitimizing the Spanish saying that “some people are gifted with iron-clad ill health.” Ironically, Hugo Chávez died of cancer before his mentor and friend, allegedly on March 5, 2013, the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death.
I say “allegedly” because there are reasons to believe that Chávez died earlier. His death was not announced immediately because Cuba first needed to settle the serious matter of succession, to make sure that aid would continue to flow from Caracas to Havana.
The man chosen to occupy the throne was Nicolás Maduro. It seems that it was Raúl Castro and Lula da Silva who convinced Chávez, near his death, to select as his heir a clumsy and oafish man who had gone through the Cuban Communist Party’s School of Cadres without making an impression. Anybody looked better to the Cubans than Diosdado Cabello, who was next in succession according to the Bolivarian Constitution but who nobody trusted.
Enter Raúl Castro
When Raúl Castro entered the stage to preside over the Cubans (from 2006 to 2008 on an interim basis but thereafter officially and permanently) he was to divide his responsibilities with Lage and Pérez Roque, but in 2009, with the help of his intelligence services, Raúl managed to get rid of his two rivals.
Both were condemned to ostracism and indignity, accused of mocking Fidel Castro, a capital sin in a regime that was absolutely strongman-driven.
Raúl Castro, five years younger than Fidel, was totally different from his brother, who undervalued him always and despised him sometimes. But one of the ways Raúl had to ingratiate himself with his brother was to exercise violence with great rigor. That’s the origin of Fidel’s strange statement in 1959 to the effect that, if he died, his brother and presumed heir would be worse than him. In a way, that was true.
Unlike Fidel, Raúl was a good family man, though he lacked intellectual density, something that distanced him from his brother. He felt good, however, when surrounded by military officers. He was an organized fellow and liked to make vulgar jokes — barracks humor.
For years, power in Cuba was divided between “Fidelistas” and “Raulistas,” but not in equal parts. The former controlled authority and followed closely the initiatives of the Maximum Leader. The latter circled the Armed Forces, protected by “Little Brother.”
Despite that, Raúl slowly seized the entire repressive apparatus, first in the 1990s by absorbing the Ministry of the Interior (full of Fidelistas) after arranging the execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Tony de la Guardia, and later sending Gen. José Abrantes to prison. Abrantes, a former Interior Minister, died “suddenly” in prison in what was obviously an execution; he knew too many secrets, especially those related to drug trafficking.
The final blow came in 2009. After the ouster of Lage and Pérez Roque came the disbanding of the so-called Comandante’s Support Group and the rowdies who engaged in Fidel Castro’s “Battle of Ideas,” an agitation-and-propaganda department endowed with ample resources that were squandered mindlessly.
By then, Raúl Castro had serious doubts about the initiatives taken by his brother, a character who had never gone beyond the stage of rabble rousing during his college years. But he was even more concerned by Marxism-Leninism and that insane project for world conquest launched by Fidel and Chávez.
After being a devout Russophile awestruck by the Soviet experience, Raúl in the 1980s ceased to believe in Marxist collectivism and asked for a swift translation into Spanish of Gorbachev’s book “Perestroika.”
The ideological world came crashing around him after the USSR disappeared and he realized that the system served only to stay in power by the force of truncheons.
Why did someone who years earlier did not believe in communism, did not respect Hugo Chávez in the least, and believed that it was a mistake to battle the United States continue to function as if he held the same ideas as his brother?
Because of something that could be called “the inertia of power.” That’s exactly what Raúl Castro meant when he said that he “did not become president to bury the revolution.” It wasn’t a question of defending the course of the revolution or its philosophical bases but to NOT bury it so he could die in peace with himself.
Of course. He was too old and tired to leap off the tiger. He was like one of those inveterate smokers who know that tobacco is killing them but feel too old to quit the vice.
He knew that the revolution had destroyed Cuba’s productive apparatus, to the degree that the country stayed upright only because of resources from abroad, mainly from Venezuela, but he didn’t feel he had enough strength or imagination to come to a full stop and reverse the process.
What will happen in Cuba if the Venezuelans put an end to Chavism, as it looks more and more likely?
The economic consequences will be terrible. Cubans’ already minimal purchasing power will be reduced even more, food restrictions and power shortages will return, and the country will stagger back to the early 1990s, when the USSR disappeared and Cuba suddenly lost the artificial but obligated market of eastern Europe.
Still, the worst consequences will be political. This economic crisis would coincide with Raúl Castro’s announced retirement in February 2018, which would mean the biological end of the generation that made the Revolution.
It would also coincide with the presidency (probably hostile) of Donald Trump and the uncertain fate of the thousands of Cubans living in Venezuela, whose precipitous return to the island would be a problem similar to that created if many of them decide to stay in that country. Hundreds of them — known in Havana as “defectors” — have already done so.
Furthermore, that situation — materially desperate and politically demoralizing — would run parallel to an absolute unbelief on the destiny of a revolution that has brought Cubans only inconvenience and pain.
Although Raúl Castro thought that his function would be not to bury a process in which he no longer believed, he will see the exact opposite happen. If he lives, he’ll see the change. And if he still retains some of his youthful boldness and decency, he won’t try to block it.
In any case, after him, and after the disappearance of Chavism, the deluge won’t come. Instead, it will be the transition to freedom by the hands of those who no longer can believe in the revolution because the revolution has failed intensely and for a long time. Much too long a time.