New buddies bond on oil, baseball

Monday, Venezuela's president signed a pact, giving Cuba a great deal on oil for five years.

In case anyone had any lingering doubts about the matter, it's official: Cuban President Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez are very good friends. They visit each other's homes, indulge their shared passion for baseball, and engage in extended, public reminiscences about their respective revolutions.

Castro was back in Havana yesterday after a four-day state visit to the South American nation that included a veterans' baseball match (won hands-down by the Cubans), an extensive tour of the country, and a speech to Parliament. Venezuelans were left pondering the domestic and international implications of a trip that went well beyond the realms of protocol into what looked at times embarrassingly like a love affair.

It is five years, 10 months, and 12 days since I first met Fidel," a dreamy-eyed Chavez reminisced to reporters in his home state of Barinas. Chavez's birthplace, Fidel assured them on the same leg of the trip, would in time be more visited than that of the liberator of South America, Venezuelan national hero Simn Bolivar.

It must have been music to the ears of the former lieutenant-colonel, who was jailed after an abortive coup in 1992 but won a landslide election victory in 1998 and insists he is embarked on a "Bolivarian" revolution.

After more than 40 years in power, Castro declared that neither his death nor his removal from the scene would affect the course of Cuba's Communist revolution. Chavez, however, he sees as indispensable. "To be objective," he told a special session of the Venezuelan Parliament, "I believe that only one man could carry out such a complex process in Venezuela - Hugo Chavez." Since being elected in 1998, the populist leader has pushed through a new Constitution, which increases the president's individual powers.

The remark was typical of a visit which was, for the most part, an extended round of backslapping and mutual admiration, which raised the hackles of many in Venezuela's opposition.

Several opposition parties boycotted Castro's address to parliament, which is dominated by Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and its allies. "I don't want dictators here, whatever their political tendency," said congresswoman Liliana Hernandez. Only the "small-mindedness" of his opponents, countered Chavez, prevented them from recognizing Castro's qualities as a world leader and "example of dignity".

Officially, Castro was in Caracas to sign a cooperation agreement under which Venezuela will meet most, if not all, of Cuba's oil needs at concessionary terms. Unlike similar agreements signed recently with Central American and some Caribbean nations, this is a five-year (rather than annual) renewable agreement and incorporates barter trade from the outset, rather than as an option at the behest of Venezuela.

Some see the deal as a virtual gift to Cuba, which has had a hard time meeting its energy needs since the collapse of its former supplier, the Soviet Union. Castro admitted in a Monday press conference that he did not believe Venezuela, "needs much of what Cuba produces."

"What is the main problem with Cuba?" asked former Venezuelan energy minister Humberto Calderon Berti. "It is that Cuba is not going to pay us. This agreement aids Cuba to the detriment of our own interests."

In order to pave the way for the agreement, the Venezuelan government had to get around the awkward problem of nearly $70 million which Havana has owed since 1975. The debt is to be "restructured" and partly paid off through trade.

Under the terms of the cooperation agreement, Cuba will receive oil in exchange for goods and services to support Venezuela's "social and economic development program." It will also receive up to 53,000 barrels per day in exchange for hard currency, but part of the cost will be converted into debt on highly favorable terms.

One of the most controversial parts of the agreement is the Cuban offer of free doctors "to provide services in places where such personnel are not available." The Venezuelan medical federation, which points out that there are 8,000 unemployed doctors in the country, says it is illegal for foreigners to practice here and has promised to fight the plan.

The services provided in exchange for oil, Chavez says, could also include medical treatment in Havana for Venezuelan patients - and he has promised to lay on the presidential jet to take them there. Although it has some of the best doctors and private clinics in the region, Venezuela's public hospitals are in a state of collapse.

The key question raised by the visit, however, is the extent to which Chavez sees Castro's Cuba as a model to emulate. Both men insist that every nation's political process is different, and Castro went so far as to say that it was possible for Venezuela - one of the world's most unequal nations - to improve social justice within a market economy.

Whether Venezuelans, who polls show overwhelmingly reject the Cuban model, will be impressed with his prognosis is another matter. "I think" - said Castro - "that in a country with the enormous resources Venezuela has, the Bolivarian revolution can achieve in half the time, 75 percent of what Cuba has [achieved]."

Whatever the achievements of the Cuban revolution, the cost has included a four-decades-long stand-off with the United States - the natural market for the Venezuelan, as well as for the Cuban economy.

"If Cuba, a little island 90 miles from the United States, has managed to resist and has struggled for 40 years, why wouldn't a much bigger country be able to?" Castro asked. It came as news to most Venezuelans, including the foreign ministry, that they were heading for such a confrontation. Maybe the Cuban leader knows something they don't.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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