With Spies and Other Operatives, a Nation Looms Over Venezuela’s Crisis: Cuba
MEXICO CITY — When the opposition leader Juan Guaidó was briefly detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents last week, some saw the hand of another government at work.
“This agency is controlled & directed by experienced oppressors sent by #Cuba & these kinds of tactics are textbook methods used by the Cuban regime,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said on Twitter.
Cuba seems to loom over the political crisis roiling Venezuela as President Nicolás Maduro faces a robust challenge from Mr. Guiadó, who declared himself interim leader this past week.
Cuba is a longtime ally of Venezuela and its biggest supporter in the region. The government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel has offered Mr. Maduro its “unwavering solidarity” and called Venezuela’s political turmoil “the attempt to impose a coup d’état, a puppet government at the service of the United States.”
In the view of many of Mr. Maduro’s opponents, however, Cuba is to blame in large part for the Venezuelan president’s endurance in office. They point to the presence of Cuban operatives in the country — spies, intelligence and political advisers, counterintelligence agents, military trainers — and contend that they have propped up Mr. Maduro by helping to suppress dissent within the armed forces and throughout society.
María Corina Machado, a Venezuelan opposition leader, said in an interview that the presence of Cubans in the Venezuelan armed forces was “unacceptable.” The Cuban government, she insisted, “must understand that they have to let go of Venezuela.”
The two nations started drawing close with the election of Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 1998. The relationship was driven by a deep friendship between Mr. Chávez and his Cuban counterpart at the time, Fidel Castro.
“They were very close, like a father-and-son relationship,” said Richard Feinberg, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a specialist on the Cuban economy.
The two leaders developed a close economic and political alliance. In addition to sending security and military specialists to Venezuela, Cuba sent experts from other professions — including doctors, nurses, teachers and athletic coaches — to beef up the South American nation’s professional ranks.
Still, some analysts say that while Cuba’s support for the current Venezuelan government is important, it ultimately will not be decisive.
“This claim that Cuba is controlling Venezuela has been around, really, since Chávez started,” said David Smilde, a sociology professor and expert on Venezuela at Tulane University. “It’s been long overblown.”
The Cubans, he added, “are key consultants and advisers, but I don’t think they’re calling the shots or telling them what to do.”
While former military officials who have fled Venezuela have reported the involvement of Cubans within the security and intelligence forces, experts say the extent of that involvement remains shrouded in mystery.
In testimony to the United States Senate in 2017, Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States and an outspoken critic of Mr. Maduro, asserted that there were about 15,000 Cubans in Venezuela and likened it to “an occupation army.”
“There’s been a lot of speculation about this, and rumors about numbers and about how close they are to Maduro,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “But I haven’t seen any hard, solid reporting on it.”
Whatever the extent of Cuba’s support, Venezuela for years supplied heavily subsidized crude oil to the island nation, at a rate of about 100,000 barrels per day, experts said. Cuba would refine the surplus and resell it on the international market.
According to a policy brief published by the Brookings Institution, by 2012 the trade in goods and services amounted to 20.8 percent of Cuba’s gross domestic product.
During the Venezuelan economic crisis of the past several years, however, crude exports to Cuba have dropped as Venezuelan oil production has collapsed. In 2017, the financial health of Venezuela’s state-run oil company, Pdvsa, had declined so much that Cuba took the company’s 49 percent share in a Cuban refinery as payment for outstanding debts.
In addition, the ranks of Cuban professionals working in the South American country have thinned in recent years, analysts say, and the relationship between Mr. Maduro and the current Cuban leadership is not nearly as warm as the friendship between their predecessors.
“They are certainly ideological brothers-in-arms — against the United States and all that,” Mr. Piccone said. “But it doesn’t have the same friendliness as it used to. And the Cubans aren’t getting as much out of it as they used to.”
Yet the alliance has been resilient.
Mr. Maduro said in a televised broadcast this month that Venezuela would take in 2,000 Cuban doctors who left Brazil after a dispute between the Brazilian and Cuban governments. Medical clinics run by Cuban doctors once proliferated throughout Venezuela, but many have fallen into decay amid the economic crisis.
Political advisers still have the ear of key officials in the Maduro administration, though Mr. Smilde said: “Cubans often complain that Maduro doesn’t listen to them.”
But perhaps most crucially to Mr. Maduro, Cubans remain a key component in the intelligence and military sectors, providing assistance with domestic surveillance, electronic wiretapping, and internal military surveillance — to help squelch dissent and shore up loyalty, analysts said.
“A coup plot is a big worry,” said Harold Trinkunas, deputy director at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and an expert on Venezuela.
In the absence of a clear information about the extent of Cuban involvement in Venezuela, rumors have spiraled, and outside assessments have often been molded for political convenience.
Speaking at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to Cuba’s involvement in Venezuela, saying its intelligence officers have brought their “own worst practices” to Caracas.
“No regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish conditions in Venezuela than the regime in Havana,” Mr. Pompeo said.
There is plenty of motivation for Cuba to remain as involved as possible to shore up the Maduro administration. Havana risks losing an important economic benefactor, not to mention a leftist ally in a region that has lately seen a rightward shift.
Should Mr. Guaidó and the opposition gain control in Caracas, “that would, of course, be very bad news for Havana,” Mr. Piccone said. “They will very quickly change the relationship with Cuba.”