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Imagining Cuba after Chávez

Venezuela provides Cuba with up to $15 billion a year, which helps offset the US embargo. But there is the real possibility Chávez may not win or survive another six-year term as president.

By Girish GuptaCorrespondent / April 17, 2012

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez chats with former vice-president Jose Vicente Rangel (r.) and current vice-president Elias Jaua (l.) as he talks during a television broadcast in Caracas on April 12.

Courtesy of Miraflores Palace/Reuters



Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez views Cuban revolutionary and former president Fidel Castro as his mentor, his “father.” The two countries have grown intertwined both ideologically and economically since Mr. Chávez rose to power in 1998.  

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Cuba and Venezuela have grown so close, in fact, that at one point in 2005, Cuba’s Vice President Carlos Lage declared “We have two presidents: Fidel and Chávez.” Perhaps a moment of hyperbole, but the statement speaks to the growing dependence that Cuba has on Venezuela, long after it lost its cold war ally, the Soviet Union.

Venezuela provides Cuba with between $5 billion and $15 billion annually, nearly a quarter of the communist island's $63 billion GDP, depending on the figures that are banded together by various sources. Neither government supplies the public with official numbers. In exchange, Cuba provides Venezuela with needed human capital, like skilled doctors and sports coaches. 

But Chávez is battling cancer, and he faces his strongest opposition since he took office more than a decade ago. A potential loss of Chavismo, as Chávez’s left-wing ideology is called, would surely transform the oil-rich, South American nation. And it would have an equally big impact on Cuba.

“If Chávez were to lose power, Cuba would be more adversely affected than any other country. The impact on the Cuban economy would be enormous,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Cuba’s current leadership, no doubt aware of such an unhappy prospect, is trying to undertake economic reforms in part to offset such a blow.” This includes attempts at diversifying investors and creating a new class of entrepreneurs not dependent on the government’s payroll.

There are clear historical parallels for Cuba should Chávez fall. The so-called Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw Cuba left in chronic economic crisis as Havana was no longer able to offset the US embargo. The economy contracted 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, and oil imports decreased nearly 90 percent in that same period. The Cuban people were plunged into food shortages, some losing up to a quarter of their body weight.


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