The government of the Castro brothers has staked everything on one card. That of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the strong man of Venezuela, a walking-talking comic strip, bursting out with some bizarre nonsense every minute. Chávez defies every canon of a balanced, sober and coherent statesman.
It could be a bible passage, or he might sing you folk song, or declaim one of his usual Maisanta poems, this Venezuelan fighter against the Spanish Colonialism of the 19th century. A deep and serious student, of course, of Simón Bolívar the Liberator.
And he has launched the strange theory that Bolívar died as the result of a complex Yankee plot. If he were a clown, comedian or a simple citizen of the state of Barinas, he would pass unnoticed. But he is the president of one of the major oil-producing countries of the world.
He has the hard currency to splurge on his extravagant projects, and considers himself a new Bolívar for the 21st century. He is committed to a different and humane socialism, but applies the same coercive measures his predecessors used to build communism.
Chávez is a confused ideological amalgam. He believes in God and Marx. He is anti-Yankee, and since he came to power in 1999, he has radicalized his rhetoric, not only against the United States, but against all the countries of the first world.
His goal is to develop an entente among poor nations, who trade among themselves, use a common currency and who don’t rely for anything on the predatory trade with rich countries. He follows the usual custom of statesmen of “socialist societies,” who have the rare mania for perpetuating their own power, and who crush the opposition and the media.
Chávez is the classic bad boy of any meeting, debate, or world symposium where he makes an appearance. He has no sense of moderation or respect. His brain is connected directly to his mouth. Any idea, no matter how absurd, spews forth without any processing by his mind. He has no clutch. Just an accelerator and a brake.
Let us add that the Red Commander runs his cabinet like a military barracks and distributes perks and positions among this friends and family, like every previous depraved Venezuelan president whom Chávez so frequently criticizes.
He came to power through the back door, thanks to a society paralyzed by the skyrocketing poverty and corruption in Venezuela. When democracies fail, they provide breeding grounds for these type of bullying strongmen.
From the Caribbean, Fidel Castro took note. After the USSR said “see you later” to the bizarre communist ideology, Cuba found itself heading back to the stone age. Long blackouts, little food, a wartime economy and a large segment of the population angry and hopeless, whose only goal was to cross the Straits of Florida on a rustic raft or to marry some boring and lonely middle-aged Spaniard.
Castro had to make concessions. Allow self-employment and small pockets of a mixed, market economy, but it wasn’t enough to move forward, though combined with the billion dollars being sent by families in Miami, it supplied him oxygen and precious time to keep his revolution from blowing away with the wind.
But the Castros worried greatly about a section of the population gaining independence. Money begets power, and makes people question the status quo. And so, the peripatetic Hugo Chávez seemed like a gift of the gods.
He had oil and money. He was a confessed admirer of Castro and had a handful of incendiary ideas that if used wisely could create a minefield for the gringos in Latin America.
Of course these were different times. Fidel Castro is a skilled political strategist, but to install a clone of the Cuban revolution in Caracas he would have to demolish the structures of civil society and free press. And obviously a segment of his dark-haired friends would not stand idly by and just watch their country go down the drain.
It is logical, than, that by February 2010 Chávez was having a terrible time. Closing a cable television station brought street demonstrations and violence. In eleven years under the commander in the red beret, the numbers tell us that there has been no reduction in poverty, corruption or violence. Quite the contrary.
What has increased is the Cuban presence, in the form of doctors, trainers and military advisers. The Castros, worried about the situation of their ally, have sent their sinister minister of communications, Ramiro Valdés, former head of the Cuban political police and former Minister of the Interior, to see what actions can be taken to stem the disconnect among a wide sector of Venezuelans.
The official Cuban press hasn’t published one line about the latest events in Caracas, nothing about the daily four-hour blackouts, and almost nothing about the presence of Valdés. According to official media in the South American country, Valdés went to develop a plan for the power industry. Hard pill to swallow. Ramiro Valdés, fervent admirer of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first boss of the Russian Cheka, is a neophyte in this area. But if there is something he knows by heart, it is how to repress people.
If Chávez were to lose power, the Cuban economy, under siege, could not withstand the terrible blow of losing oil supplies. It is likely that among the counsels of Valdés are some messages from Fidel Castro, calling for restraint from the restless and unruly Bolivarian commander.
The Castros have bet everything on the Hugo Chávez card. From creating a trade organization, ALBA, or a common currency, the sucre, to depending on South American oil to keep the lights on in Cuba. For them, there is no way they can allow the rash Chávez to throw it all into the abyss. They are going to try everything. The fate of Venezuela is, in a very real sense, the fate of Cuba. And the Cuban government will do whatever it takes to keep the Venezuelan Santa Claus on the throne.
They bet on the wrong horse. But at this point, for the Castros, there is no turning back.
Photo: Reuters. Hugo Chávez and Ramiro Valdés, Minister of Communications and Technology, during a recent visit to Venezuela.
The street corners of Havana are hot. Glowing. Like a match on sandpaper that will burst into flame at the slightest touch. Baseball is to blame. This spring it is being played coast-to-coast on the island, celebrating the playoffs of the national sport, and Los Industriales, the team representing the capital, is hitting hot. The fans are going wild.
If baseball or “the ball,” as it is called in Cuba, serves as relaxation for most men, for women the sedative is found in soap operas, the electronic opium that makes them forget for 45 minutes that their refrigerators are empty.
But the ordinary Cuban also gives at least a passing glance to local events. And sees bad signs. Circulating clandestinely throughout the country are more than 300 photos of 26 deaths (rumored to be almost 60) from hunger, cold, and ill-treatment this past January, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.
If you have the courage to look at the entire dark collection you have a strong stomach. The photos, taken by police experts, somehow escaped the iron state censorship imposed by the authorities over the Mazorra case. And many people carry them on their USB or flash memory, and late at night, when the children are asleep, like a scary movie, they watch the horrors on their computers.
The black and white images of the dead are comparable to those from any Nazi concentration camp. Men without teeth, with fresh marks from beatings, emaciated bodies, concrete testimony of the hunger they suffered. They were so thin that three bodies fit on one stretcher.
Confronted with such horror, ordinary people have been shaken. Roberto Osorio, 34, an engineer, trembled with fear at the photos. And he wondered how these things could happen in this country, which, according to its leaders, has a public health system comparable with the best in the world.
In a survey of 30 people, between 19 and 74 years old, of both sexes, they unanimously demanded not only a thorough investigation, but also asked for the resignation of Public Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera.
Balaguer (born in Santiago de Cuba, 1932), a doctor by profession and one of the guerrilla commanders who participated in the revolution, is a member of the State Council and the Politburo of the Communist Party. He was appointed Minister of Public Health by Fidel Castro himself, when on July 31, 2006, he announced that for health reasons he was transferring power to his brother Raul.
One of those surveyed, Dahlia Fuentes, 56, an architect, doesn’t believe it’s possible that the minister wasn’t aware of what was happening in the country’s main mental hospital. “In every workplace in Cuba, there is a core of the Party and the Communist Youth, and they have to report what goes on. Furthermore, I assume that the Ministry of Health makes periodic inspections of its hospitals. If, in spite of all that, Balaguer’s story is that he was not informed of what was going on there, then he should resign because of incompetence” the architect says angrily.
Sara Villar, 21, a medical student, goes further. “Events like these are a clear sign that the country needs radical changes. It is not enough just to ask for the resignations and prosecutions of those responsible, it is the system that doesn’t work,” says the future doctor.
What happened in Mazorra in January 2010, has placed the performance of public officials, administrators and ministers in the public pillory. Also the political opposition, alternative journalists and the blogosphere are demanding the termination of Balaguer. The blogger Yoani Sanchez opened the tag #despidanaabalaguer# on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of followers so far.
Amid the passionate discussions around the series of local baseball playoffs, and the next episode of the snoozer soap operas, the opinion on the street prevails: people want the head of the Minister of Public Health to roll.
The government has gone totally mute. Its response is silence. Even in these days, Jose Ramon Balaguer is appearing more than ever on TV. And people are wondering if that is the method adopted by the mandarins of court to confirm him in office.
It would be swimming against the current. But if there is one thing the Castro brothers know how to do well, it is swim upstream.
Photo: José Ramón Balaguer during the presentation of the book, “Battles for Life,” in February 2009.
Translated by: Tomás A.