For the Castro brothers Venezuela has always been the coveted grand prize of Cuban national security policy. Patiently, they plotted and changed tactics for 40 years until their efforts finally bore fruit with the rise to power of Hugo Chávez.
Venezuelan oil, credits, and joint ventures — worth on average more than $6 billion annually — have flowed, shoring up the Cuban economy even more solidly than the subsidies previously provided by the Soviet Union. There is no reason to believe that Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s anointed successor, will reduce that commitment if, as seems likely, he is elected next month to a six-year presidential term of his own.
The objective of winning a strategic foothold in Venezuela was so important to the Castros that they never gave up even after calamitous failures. One of the worst was in November 1963 when a three-ton cache of arms and ammunition destined for local guerrillas was discovered buried on a Venezuelan beach. After it was proved the weapons had come from Cuba, the Organization of American States voted economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Castro regime. With the exception of Mexico, every Latin American government severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. The cost was great; but for the Castros the effort was worthwhile.
Despite failure after failure, they never doubted that with Cuban support a sibling revolutionary regime could somehow be boosted into power in Caracas. With that accomplished, it was thought in Havana, any such regime would feel a duty to reciprocate with massive economic aid. This strategic vision has not changed since January 1959.
It was only 21 days after seizing power when Fidel ventured forth on his first foreign junket as Cuba’s unquestioned leader. He went to Caracas. Greeted as a conquering hero by vast crowds, he delivered a number of speeches, including one to a stadium full of cheering youths and students. That was his first taste of international acclaim, and whetted his appetite for a much larger, catalytic role in Latin America.
Ostensibly, he went to thank President Rómulo Betancourt for the assistance Venezuela provided his insurgency. But Fidel’s true motives were more sinister and mercenary. He tried to persuade Betancourt to extend economic aid and to join him in an anti-American entente. Castro described it as “the master plan against the gringos.” He was spurned, but as a result Betancourt became Fidel’s most despised enemy and target of unrelenting subversion.
Overthrowing the democratically elected government in Caracas became Cuba’s highest priority in Latin America. Yet Betancourt and his successor survived everything the Castros hurled against them — saboteurs, terrorists, assassins, pirates, and a powerful guerrilla insurgency. Nearly a half century later Betancourt was still on Fidel’s mind. In 2010 Castro wrote in one of his “reflections” that the long deceased Venezuelan was “the most abject and vile enemy of the people . . . a fake and a pretender.” Castro never forgets an adversary.
Cuban efforts to install Venezuela’s Marxist insurgents into power were a joint effort by Raúl Castro’s military and Cuban intelligence. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young Venezuelans were trained in guerrilla tactics and covert tradecraft and provided funding and military support. Their insurgency — the Armed Forces of National Liberation — grew into the largest guerrilla force in the region during the 1960s. According to a declassified CIA estimate, Venezuela was the only country where Cuba was expecting “imminent revolutionary victory.”
To make that happen, Raúl dispatched more than a dozen of his best and most trusted military officers to instruct and fight with Venezuelan guerrillas. They were plagued by failures. In May 1967 a commando force of Cubans and Venezuelan guerrillas landed at Machurucuto, an isolated beach on the Venezuelan coast. Several perished, and two Cuban military officers were captured after a fierce firefight with local security forces. The mission was betrayed by a CIA agent in the Cuban military.
General Arnaldo Ochoa, executed on trumped up charges in 1989, was another of the Venezuela veterans. He saved the life of another Cuban, who also rose to become a three star general. Ulises Rosales del Toro, chief of the armed forces general staff for 15 years, nearly died in Venezuela. Ochoa saved his life by carrying him on his back to safety when he was too weak and emaciated to walk. Rosales did not repay the favor when he voted in a military tribunal for Ochoa’s execution.
The struggle for Venezuela has therefore been the most enduring and hardest fought of Cuba’s security objectives. Fidel always thought strategically, many moves ahead, like a grand master moving pieces on a giant chess board. Che Guevara fought and died in a hopeless insurgency in Bolivia. That was not important for Fidel. He never lost sight of the richest prize: Bolivia was a pawn; Venezuela was always the opponent’s queen.
Brian Latell is senior research associate, Cuba Studies, University of Miami, and author of Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine.