Raul Castro makes historic first visit to Venezuela
Cuba's new president is not as close to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as Fidel Castro. But Raul and Chávez need each other, now more than ever, say analysts.
Caracas, Venezuela, and Mexico City
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage has been just as effusive: "Cuba has two presidents: Fidel and Chávez."
So, it's no surprise that Castro's successor, his younger brother Raul, will, on his first overseas trip since becoming Cuba's president in July 2006, go to Venezuela.
"[This] has for us the same significance of the visit of Fidel in 1959," Mr. Chavez said on Wednesday, in announcing Raul Castro's visit on Saturday. "Raul is going to repeat history."
But Raul is not Fidel and the relationship with Chávez is not as close.
"It's Fidel who Chávez idolizes.... Chávez considers himself to be a descendent of Fidel," says Brian Latell, author of the book "After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba's Revolution." "From Raul's perspective... he has lived under the shadow, the often overbearing shadow, of Fidel for 50 years. Does he want to put himself under someone else's shadow?"
Mr. Chávez and Fidel Castro – Latin America's most vociferous foes of the US – have forged a strong friendship since the mid-90s. The visit by Raul to Caracas, his first trip since taking over from his ailing brother, underscores the continuity of that connection.
While the relationship between Chávez and Raul is shallower than that with Fidel, the mutual needs of the two – Chávez needs the revolutionary brand, while Cuba needs the money – is likely to take precedent over any lack of personal chemistry. In fact, say analysts, the two leaders may need each even more now that oil prices have taken a dramatic dive and Chávez's popularity seems to have slackened.
The visit underscores Cuba's dependence on Venezuela after the collapse of the Soviet Union – a relationship that, despite a visit from Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev last month, has been eclipsed by Venezuela. Cuba is in a vulnerable position today as the price of oil has fallen to $48 per barrel. "Chávez provides such an enormous subsidy, Raul may perceive [this visit] as something close to obligatory," Mr. Latell says.
The US State Department reported in August that Venezuela sends Cuba 90,000 barrels per day of crude oil and other types of fuel. The Venezuelan government has spent $166 million to help Cuba retrofit a Soviet-era petrochemical plant in Cienfuegos, according to Oil & Gas Journal Worldwide Refining Survey.
Antonio Jorge, a professor of political economy at Florida International University, says the fuel and other forms of Venezuelan assistance amount to a subsidy of more than $2 billion per year. "Venezuelan aid is decisive for maintaining the Cuban regime," he says.
In return, Cubans staff medical clinics throughout Venezuela and send coaches to train an upcoming crop of Venezuelan baseball players.