Comraderie in Cuba

by by Kat Thornton

illustration by by Diane Zhou

On October 8, the day after Hugo Chavez was re-elected president of Venezuela, Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz printed a congratulatory message in bright red in the Cuban Communist Party’s official newspaper, Granma: “In the name of the Cuban government and people, I congratulate you for this historical triumph.”

Chavez’s re-election represents a symbolic and economic victory for Cuba, which relies on the petroleum-rich state for stable oil prices and purchases of its medical and technological services. On election day, Cuban television broadcasted full coverage of the election unfolding in Caracas.

Nearly 81 percent of Venezuela’s 28 million citizens voted in this year’s election—an unprecedented voter turnout for the country. Chavez, cancer-free since February thanks to surgery in Havana, savored the victory of 54 percent of the vote, addressed voters from his presidential balcony while brandishing a sword. Only nine points ahead of his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, it was the closest election in Chavez’s 13-year tenure.

While there were not the same riotous parties in the streets that there were in Caracas on October 7, Cubans breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing of Chavez’s re-election. Intellectuals and people on the street alike acknowledged the importance of the Venezuelan election for Cuba’s economy as well as political unity across Latin America. It appears that for the next six years, Cuba can look forward to a symbolic partner and a stable economic ally.


“The most important election for Cuba [this year] is the Venezuelan one,” said Aurelio Alonso, an investigative sociologist and one of Cuba’s most prominent essayists since the triumph of the Revolution (to use local vocabulary).  Chavez’s re-election means Cuba does not need to fear falling into an economic depression like the one suffered in the 1990s, which the government euphemized as the ‘special period.’

Last year Cuba traded $6 billion worth of goods with Venezuela, or about 40 percent of their total commercial trade. While the economic relationship is nowhere near the scale of the Soviet Union partnership from the early 1960s to 1991, which represented 80 percent of Cuba’s trade in 1961, Venezuela’s stable oil prices and purchase of Cuban medical services are an important source of economic stability. Without Venezuelan oil, “we would be in an eternal blackout,” said Victor Fowler, a Cuban writer who wrote poetry about life on the island in the 1990s. The ‘special period’ arose when nearly three-quarters of the Cuban economy collapsed due to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Oil imports came to a stop, causing a simultaneous standstill in domestic transportation and agricultural production.

Havana’s streets today are abuzz with car engines. It is hard to imagine the streets without the public buses filled to the brim with people, each paying a fare of less than two cents a ride. Without Venezuelan oil, the situation would more likely resemble the streets in the 90s—filled instead with imported Chinese bicycles and tired, skinny pedestrians. “This country could not handle another special period as brutal as the 90s,” said Ernesto Sánchez Valdés, a documentary filmmaker in Havana. “Oil is like water right now.” If Cuba did not have Venezuelan oil as a stable form of energy, it could not move forward as a society. In the special period, Cuban towns were subject to scheduled blackouts for an average of eight hours per day. “If there’s no light, you can’t work, you can’t develop things,” he said.


Though Chavez’s re-election is an economic victory for Cuba, its ideological implications for the country are more muddled. Every time I asked someone about the ideological significance of Chavez’s win, they would respond with a variation on, ‘it’s complicated.’

While both Cuba and Venezuela identify their political systems as socialist, the two countries are working toward their own unique realizations of the paradigm. While there are numerous private corporations in Venezuela, Cuba’s economy is almost completely managed by the State, with semi-private enterprises having only emerged recently. “They are not working with an ideological inheritance from any nation. It is their own project,” Sánchez said. But some say Chavez’s re-election serves as proof of the popularity of an exemplary socialist project that now has six more years to move forward.

Cuban leaders look to traditional leftist voices like Marx and Lenin for its socialist values, but Chavez primarily points to Simón Bolívar and his revolutionary ideals. An ambitious Venezuelan military and political leader, Bolívar fought for Latin American independence from Spain in the early 1900s. He pursued the unification of all of Latin America into one country, but Chavez is instead aiming for a strong alliance and economic exchange among the various Latin American nations. With the success of Venezuela’s economy over the past decade Chavez has strived to create a strong Latin American alliance by promoting economic exchanges with Cuba and Nicaragua. “His re-election makes it possible for this [unification] to be a more profound process,” Fowler said.

Compared to Cuban leadership, “[Chavez] is on a new level,” Fowler said. Adult literacy rose from 90 percent in 1985 to 95 percent in 2007, and school attendance rates rose from 87 percent to 93 percent between 2000 and 2010. And international observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter, have praised Venezuela’s inclusive democratic process. Eighty-one percent of Venezuelans voted in this year’s elections.

Cuba has reached similar health and education standards, and boasts Latin America’s highest college matriculation rate. But its democratic process is convoluted and generally regarded as a vertical system of power. Its economy is still struggling. With its democratic process and relatively strong economy, Venezuela is a “more advanced socialist experiment,” said Alonso. “I think there are experiences that should give lessons to Cuba.”

Latin American unity, as defined by Chavez, has come to mean a multilateral front against US imperialism. Looking forward, the re-election will benefit Cuba and Venezuela’s resistance to the US’s economic and political influence in Latin America. Fowler partially attributes recent Argentinean, Venezuelan, and Brazilian economic success to their ability to defend themselves from US involvement. Along with many other Latin American states, Cuba has a long history of US intervention in their country. The world market pushed a sugar monoculture on Cuba since the height of the Triangle Trade, making the country and its people dependent on the often-changing world price of sugar. In the first half of the 20th century, the United States was the primary buyer of Cuban sugar.

Additionally, the list of Latin American leaders deposed or installed by American agencies in Chile, Cuba, and other nations is long and has resulted in a significant lack of confidence in American interaction in the region’s economies or politics. With Venezuela as a leader, Latin American nations have come together to confront US economic dominance.

“Chavez is not nice to the White House,” says Alonso. “Neither is Correa [President of Ecuador], neither is Evo Morales [President of Bolivia]. The fact that these countries help each other to confront US commercial interests in Latin America means that «the identity of the continent is alive,” said Fowler.

Anti-US propaganda is commonplace in Havana. On a wall labeled “The Cretins’ Corner” in Havana’s Revolutionary Museum, there is a caricature of George W. Bush alongside Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr., and the overthrown Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. Bush Jr. is pictured reading a book upside down, with his usual cartoonish big ears and squinty eyes and a not-so-usual swastika marked hat, next to a text box that reads, “Thank you cretin for helping us make socialism irrevocable.” Chavez expressed similar sentiments in a 2006 statement when he said, “I think Hitler could be a nursery baby next to George W. Bush.”

Chavez’s re-election is a promise for a progressive, anti-neoliberal Venezuela, wrote Julio Cesar Guanche, a noted essayist and co-worker of Alonso, in an email. “He has demonstrated that there exists advantageous and viable exits from the neoliberal option,” he wrote. “The Venezuelan elections represent what election should represent: choosing not only a president but a model of society.”


On the streets of Havana, the Cubans I spoke with expressed overwhelmingly positive reactions to Chavez’s re-election. Several Cubans lauded Chavez’s likeness to Fidel and his consideration for the country’s poor. “Hugo Chavez is a president who helps the people, helps the poor—and the entire world is thankful for that,” said Rolando Rodriguez, a bakery employee. Wafrido Roja, a resident of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, vociferously agreed. “For me, he is another Fidel,” he said with a grin. A group of elderly men sunning on the sidewalk with him nodded in agreement.

“I think the fact that he helps the people who would never have had a chance for anything is wonderful, don’t you think?” asked Sánchez, who prides himself on coming from a humble background. But the narrow margin of victory in Venezuela shows that “there is less, rather than more, enthusiasm for his ideas than there has been in previous years,” wrote Esther Whitfield, a Brown University associate professor of comparative literature.

Indeed, not everyone in Cuba was thrilled about Chavez’s victory. “What sounds good to me is a place where there is a democratic system where the president presides for a period and then no more,” said an elderly woman and former government employee who did not want to be identified because she did not want unnecessary publicity or trouble from the government. The Venezuelan president eliminated term limits through a referendum in 2009. The woman said today’s leaders should follow the example of iconic 19th century Cuban independence fighter Jose Martí who said “to renew yourself is to revitalize yourself.”

Kat Thornton B’14 triumphed in the revolution.