Cuba would undoubtedly suffer a devastating economic punch if Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose subsidies to Havana are estimated at more than $4 billion a year, loses his reelection bid Sunday.
But a Chávez defeat has a long-shot chance of carrying a thin silver lining, some analysts say. It could boost Cubans who favor deeper economic reforms so that their country can stand on its own two feet and might even fuel domestic desires for free elections in the island.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has made it clear that if he wins the vote, his oil-rich nation will halt the massive assistance that the socialist Chávez has been providing to his foreign allies.
“Not one drop of free black gold will leave the country,” Capriles said to the French Liberation newspaper in a recent interview. Polls in the nation of 30 million people have split in their predictions for a winner in Sunday’s balloting .
Venezuela pays Havana an estimated $5.1 billion a year for the services of the 30,000 Cuban medical personnel, 15,000 teachers, and other advisors deployed in the South American nation, according to documents obtained recently by El Nuevo Herald.
The payments – estimated at $114 billion or $113,333 for every Cuban deployed in Venezuela and 4.4 percent of the island’s Gross National Product in 2010 – arrive in Cuba in the form more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day plus cash and shares in Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the Venezuelan government’s oil monopoly.
In turn, the Cubans have helped Chávez stay in power, providing the backbone of the free medical and educational services that have made his “21st century socialism” popular among Venezuela’s poor.
Havana’s dependence on Chávez is so profound that Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since March, reportedly has been writing letters to the Venezuelan president urging him to make sure he stays in power.
“If the counterrevolution manages to … get you out of there and grab the people’s power, the persecution and destruction will be widespread. They will not forgive anyone,” Castro wrote in one letter, according to a recently published book.
A Chávez defeat also might push Cuba toward adopting deeper economic reforms than those currently espoused by island ruler Raúl Castro, said Pedro Burelli, a Chávez critic who follows developments in Caracasand Havana.
“It would kill any ideological illusions left in Cuba for socialism in Venezuela,” Burelli said, while strengthening the voice of those Cubans who want more reforms and weakening “those who want to preserve the current antiquated system.”
Even a Chávez victory in a closely fought ballot Sunday might push Cuba toward moderation, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban government analyst now lecturing at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
Given the relative pluralism of Venezuelan politics, Havana should seek “more fluid relations” with all political forces in the South American country “beyond its logical ideological preference,” Lopez-Levy said in an email to El Nuevo Herald.
The narrow gap predicted between Chávez and Capriles, the academic added, also should teach Cuba to avoid “a repeat of the excessive dependence on a single market, as happened until 1960 with the United States and afterwards with the USSR.”
The competitive Venezuelan balloting might even eventually help to promote “more competitive elections in Cuba,” Lopez-Levy added.