The Americas

Cuba prepares for Venezuela disruptions

 

jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

As political violence in Venezuela rolls on, Cubans say they are hearing reports that Havana is making energy or military preparations for a possible disruption of its tight alliance with the South American nation.

Cuba’s stagnant economy depends overwhelmingly on Venezuelan subsidies estimated at well over $6 billion a year — even more than the former Soviet Union once provided to the Caribbean island.

“If something ugly happens in Venezuela, we are fried like in the Special Period,” said Havana teacher Yadiel Ramirez.

The end of Soviet subsidies in 1991 plunged Cuba into a brutal crisis, shrinking the economy by 33 percent and sparking widespread hunger.

Former top Cuban government economist Jesús “Marzo” Fernandez said close Cuban friends working in Venezuela for that country’s state-owned PDVSA oil company have told him Havana has prepared for a sudden stop in Venezuelan oil imports.

The friends said all oil storage facilities on the island, including those set aside for military, government and strategic reserves, were full to the top as of March 4, Fernandez said. Caracas sends Cuba abour 115,000 barrels per day, two-thirds of its consumption.

“They are preparing? No. They are prepared,” added Fernandez, who now lives in Miami. “They won’t be surprised. The Cubans work with a long-distance view.”

Most analysts remain skeptical of claims by the Venezuelan opposition of Cuban troops arriving in the country in recent weeks to defend President Nicolas Maduro and quell the anti-government protests that have left 25 dead and more than 300 injured.

Opposition activists have published long-distance photos of unidentified soldiers landing in a military airport, and reports of people with Cuban accents beating up anti-Maduro protesters.

But Venezuela already has many Cuban military and security advisors —about 5,000, by some estimates —and the resistance to Maduro was all but predictable after the death last year of his charismatic mentor and Cuba ally, former President Hugo Chávez, analysts said.

“It doesn’t make sense [Cuba] would need to send in more people” after the anti-government protests erupted, said Chris Simmons, a retired Cuba counter-intelligence expert at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.

Cuba’s usually secretive government has said nothing about any security assistance to Venezuela’s leftist-populist “Bolivarian Revolution,” launched by Chávez.

But two Cuban dissidents who have provided good information in the past said they have received reports that military reservists in six municipalities around the country were contacted this month to be ready for trouble in Venezuela.

Guillermo Fariñas, who served with a commando unit in Angola and underwent military training in the Soviet Union until he suffered a training accident, said three supporters told him about call-ups in his home province of Villa Clara.

The Military Committees in the municipalities of Santa Clara, Ranchuelo, Sagua La Grande and Manicaragua have asked several reservists with combat experience in Africa and Nicaragua and under 50 years of age if they would be willing to deploy to Venezuela.

If they answer yes, the reservists are told to consider themselves “pre-mobilized” and stay in touch with the committees, Farinas told El Nuevo Herald. If they say no, they are told to keep the meetings secret.

Farinas said that was much the same way Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) started its deployments to Africa in the late 1970s, quietly calling up experienced reserves rather than relying on young conscripts whose political loyalty was untested.

The Military Committees at the municipal and provincial levels handle the military draft and coordinate exercises — usually held in June in preparation for the hurricane season and at year’s end to mark the founding of the FAR.

Farinas, spokesman for the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union and winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience in 2010, started to make the information about the call-ups public earlier this month on Twitter.

He said he had not heard of any call-ups in the nine other municipalities in Villa Clara, and was skeptical of the reports of elite Cuban troops arriving in Venezuela.

Independent Havana journalist Roberto de Jesus Guerra said he received similar reports of reserve activities linked to the Venezuela crisis from in the eastern city of Manzanillo, the town of Güines southeast of Havana and the Havana neighborhood of Calabazar.

Six sources he trusts reported that the Military Committees in those places told veteran reservists earlier this month that there would be military exercises in coming days to generally prepare for any emergencies related to Venezuela, Guerra said.

“We have [exercises] every year but not in these months,” added Guerra, who runs the Hablemos Press independent news agency in Havana. “This is unusual.”

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