Concern over Cuba's role in Venezuela

Military show in the Venezuelan capital Caracas There's growing concern over Cuba's involvment in Venezuela's military affairs

During recent bicentenary celebrations in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez presided over what he called "the greatest military show in Venezuelan history".

As Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets screamed overhead, he spoke of how Venezuela would never again be the subject of a foreign power.

On the podium, the socialist leader was flanked by his closest allies including Evo Morales of Bolivia and the Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

Start Quote

Fidel Castro has become a father figure for him: Fidel the father, Hugo the son”

End Quote Professor Demitrio Boersner Former Venezuelan ambassador

But sitting just behind them was another important ally - albeit one less recognised: Ramiro Valdez.

Comandante Valdez is one of the veterans of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and fought in the Sierra Maestra mountains alongside Fidel and Raul Castro, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Since then he has held a series of posts in the Cuban Government both on the communist island and abroad. Now he is a top advisor to the Chavez Government.

"The presence of Comandante Valdes himself doesn't concern me, but rather what he represents," says Demitrio Boersner, a former Venezuelan ambassador who now teaches at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

"President Chavez has never concealed his deep sympathy with the Cuban model," Professor Boersner argues, saying the arrival of thousands of Cuban medics and teachers in Venezuela is part of a wider effort by Mr Chavez to move the oil-rich nation towards Castro-style communism.

'An ocean of happiness'

"Chavez has referred frequently to Cuba as 'an ocean of happiness' for the common people and that something very similar will be established in Venezuela gradually."

Moreover, he says, the paternal relationship between Mr Chavez and Fidel Castro is crucial:

"Fidel Castro has become a father figure for him: Fidel the father, Hugo the son."

Needless to say, it is not a view which government supporters share. "I think that is a limited vision," says journalist Eva Golinger. "It demeans and underestimates the will and the power of self-determination of the Venezuelan people."

Instead, she says the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba, and for that matter, between Chavez and Castro, is a pragmatic one based on decades of intransigence by Washington.

"Cuba is a country which has provided services and technology (to Venezuela) which other countries haven't been willing to provide," says Golinger, referring to the thousands of doctors in Cuban-run health clinics and the agricultural advisors sent over by Mr Castro.

"In many ways, it's a completely normal diplomatic and socio-political relationship.

I think the cause of controversy is because there has been a shift away from the United States which used to provide a lot of that collaboration -- or so-called collaboration because it wasn't really collaboration at all. It was either imposition or exploitation."

Start Quote

The president speaks of 30,000 Cuban personnel in Venezuela. But I've heard of 50,000 or even 60,000 ... We just don't know. ”

End Quote Antonio Rivero Former head of Venezuela's civil protection agency

As members of the ALBA group of left-wing nations, Venezuela provides around 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, mainly paid for with Cuban medical staff.

But while the nature of the partnership between the two revolutions has been controversial since Hugo Chavez first paid a state visit to Havana in late 1999, recently it has taken on a new dimension.

Meddling in the military

A high profile general, Antonio Rivero, resigned his post as head of the country's civil protection agency accusing Cuban advisors of meddling in the country's military.

He has taken the matter to the state prosecutor's office.

General Rivero is now a very wary man. He will only speak to journalists via encrypted text messages and meet in public places for fear that he is being monitored. We met in a busy cafe in Caracas.

"There are various areas in which the Cuban advisors are concentrated," General Rivero says, "particularly military engineering, which includes the area of military fortifications.

Ramiro Valdez Comandante Ramiro Valdez represents the deep ties of Venezuela and Cuba

That's where the state's main security equipment, resources, maps and plans are stored. That another country helps plan, carry out and, indeed, correct work at such a sensitive level to national security -- is not something which other countries would allow."

It was a situation, he explains, which ultimately forced him to resign.

"The president speaks of 30,000 Cuban personnel in Venezuela. But I've heard of 50,000 or even 60,000 Cubans working here. We just don't know. The government won't give us the numbers."

In the wake of General Rivero's public resignation, Mr Chavez said the former civil defence chief had been hanging out with the "wrong people" and attacked his expected nomination in the upcoming legislative elections.

President Chavez remains as defiant as ever when it comes to his relationship with Cuba, saying whatever Cubans are doing in Venezuela, it is for the good of the Venezuelan people:

"We have diverse mechanisms of cooperation with Cuba, the most important of which is the thousands of Cuban medical staff in the streets attending the sick and reaching out to the community," he retorted recently.

"Yes, there is military cooperation which perhaps worries the bourgeoisie. Well, the bourgeoisie can rest easy! Everything Cuba does for us is to strengthen the fatherland."

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VENEZUELA UNDER CHAVEZ

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