By Brian Nelson
Mr. Nelson is a former Fulbright Grantee to Venezuela and the author of
the new book about the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez, The Silence and
the Scorpion. He teaches for Johns Hopkins University's Center for
Many are calling Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez "Castro's Heir"—a man
destined to be the perpetual thorn in the side of the United States just
as Castro has been for the last 50 years.
Like Castro, Hugo Chávez wants to expel U.S. interests from Latin
America while simultaneously expanding his own brand of socialism. But
unlike Castro, Hugo Chávez has the massive profits from Venezuela's oil
industry to actually make a difference. In 2007 alone Chávez gave $8.8
billion in aid to his Latin American neighbors (the U.S. gave only $1.6
billion, most of it earmarked for Colombia). What's more, Chávez has
set up four TV stations to broadcast his ideological message and has
even given aid to the Colombian FARC.
The strategy seems to be working. Since Chávez took office in 1999,
Latin America has seen a dramatic shift to the left. Today the leaders
of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are not simply left,
they are pro-Castro and pro-Chávez left. At the acceptance speech of El
Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes in March 2009, supporters waved
Venezuelan flags and Funes's first act as president was to restore
political ties with Cuba. Then on June 3, 2009 these presidents, led by
Chávez, voted to reinstate Cuba into the Organization of the American
States after 47 years of exclusion. (An invitation that Cuba promptly
While Cuba's renewed popularity has been partially fueled by the failure
of U.S. development programs in the region, it actually has much more to
do with Castro himself than many people realize. In fact, the long
battles that the Cuban leader fought—and appeared to have lost—during
the Cold War are now paying big dividends.
Venezuela, in particular, was a very important Cold War battleground
throughout the 1960s. Castro saw Venezuela not only as an inexhaustible
breadbasket of natural resources—it is the world's sixth largest oil
exporter—but also a beachhead into the rest of South America from which
he could expand his socialist revolution.
By sending money, arms, and military advisors to the Venezuelan
communist guerilla group FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation)
Castro waged a decade-long war on Venezuela that included bombings,
kidnappings, assassinations, and two coup attempts. (It was Castro's
connection to the coup attempt of 1962 that caused Cuba's expulsion from
the Organization of American States.)
However, by the end of the 60s, Castro's patriot games were causing the
Kremlin considerable embarrassment as it tried to negotiate détente with
the U.S. Finally, First Secretary Brezhnev threatened to pull Soviet
subsidies to Cuba if Castro didn't behave. Castro reluctantly complied.
Without Castro's support, the FALN quickly collapsed. In an effort to
move the country forward, the Venezuelan government offered the
guerrillas amnesty if they would renounce violence. Almost all of the
FALN leaders complied, with one important exception. A man named
Douglas Bravo refused to take the nonviolent route and continued his
attacks on the government.
By the mid 1970s, Hugo Chávez was a lieutenant in the Venezuelan Army
working in counter-insurgency: it was his job to hunt down and eradicate
the remaining guerrillas—principally Douglas Bravo. But Chávez quickly
found that he empathized with the guerrillas, whom he considered
peasants fighting for a better way of life.
Chávez was about to leave the army in disgust when he discovered that
his brother, Adán, was secretly working with Bravo. Adán arranged for
the two men to meet. "He inspired me and I realized I wouldn't be
leaving the army," Chávez later said. Indeed, the two worked closely
together for nearly a decade. At Bravo's urgings Chávez began spreading
their revolutionary ideology within the military with the goal of
eventually taking power in a coup. Hence, Chávez spent most of his
military career developing his own idea for socialism based on the Cuban
model, all the while trying to maneuver himself into a position where he
had more troops and more hardware.
The opportunity to launch a coup finally came on February 4, 1992. But
unfortunately for Chávez, President Carlos Pérez had been tipped off to
the conspiracy and was ready. After a brief firefight outside the
palace, Chávez was forced to surrender. Then a curious thing happened.
Chávez suddenly became a national hero.
Why? At the time Venezuela was reeling from more than a decade of
recession which most people blamed on the corrupt two-party political
system that had been in place since 1958. In Hugo Chávez people saw
someone taking a stand against corruption; someone brave enough to risk
his life to change Venezuela. And even though Chávez was put in jail, he
was so popular that he was quickly pardoned.
Enter now another communist veteran of the guerrilla movement of the
1960s and good friend of Douglas Bravo's—Luis Miquilena. Like many of
the former guerrillas, Miquilena had not given up on his dreams of
making Venezuela a socialist state and he felt that if he could launch
the popular Hugo Chávez as a political candidate he might very well
succeed. Chávez—who still believed that true revolution could only be
achieved through armed struggle—reluctantly agreed.
Miquilena then took Chávez to visit Castro. The Cuban leader was not
only waiting for them on the tarmac, but accompanied them the entire
trip, even staying up past midnight and cooking with them. Castro, too,
realized the potential of the charismatic Chávez.
In 1998, guided by Miquilena's political expertise, Hugo Chávez was
elected president of Venezuela. The socialist revolutionaries were back.
Very quickly, the Chávez-Castro connection became very strong. Between
1999 and 2004 the two leaders met more than 15 times and reportedly
spoke on the phone every few days.
In addition to their shared socialist vision, both leaders have gained
enormously from the partnership. The year that Chávez came to power,
1999, was the year that Russian subsidies to Cuba negotiated during the
Cold War finally expired—leaving the island desperate for foreign aid.
Venezuela neatly replaced Russia as Cuba's economic lifeline. Today,
Venezuela's oil shipments to the island amount to $2.5 billion per year,
which allows Castro to bolster the Cuban economy and keep the revolution
alive. For Chávez, a young and relatively inexperienced statesman up
against a powerful opposition, the expertise offered by Castro in
running a social revolution is invaluable.
But even more important for Castro is that a Cuban-Venezuelan alliance
means that the revolution can once again expand—which it certainly has.
Through Chávez, Castro—now in his twilight—has at last made his
beachhead into South America. The inroads that he had tried to
accomplish through armed revolt since the 1960s—in Bolivia, Colombia,
Nicaragua, and Venezuela—have finally come to him through the Venezuelan
ballot box, then, subsequently, through the Bolivian ballot box, the
Nicaraguan ballot box, and, most recently, the El Salvadorian ballot box.
Where this pro-Castro tide will end is, for the moment, anyone's guess.
The Chávez-Castro Connection Lies in a Now Forgotten Chapter of the Cold
War (29 June 2009)