When Cuban leader Fidel Castro died, Venezuela declared three days of national mourning. At face value, the decision might seem reasonable: The two nations are staunch socialist allies with deep ideological and economic ties.
But since 2007, five former Venezuelan presidents have died and none has received the same special treatment. In a nation steeped in blood and loss, including last week’s discovery of a dozen bodies murdered by the military, bestowing the honor to a foreign leader seems out of place.
“Death is painful but don’t impose [national] mourning for a dictator,” said former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. “Why don’t we have mourning for the 12 Venezuelans who were massacred in Barlovento?”
The symbolic period of grief underscores just how deep ties run between the nations, and how Fidel Castro’s ideals and policies are still promoted heavily by the Venezuelan government even as his ashes are being put to rest.
Ever since Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he has had his eyes on resource-rich Venezuela. In 1967, a handful of Cuban-trained guerrillas landed on Machurucuto beach with the hopes of inspiring a peasant rebellion. The Venezuelan military stopped the invasion, but three decades later one of their own would welcome the Castros with open arms.
In 1992, an unknown and charismatic Venezuelan tank commander, Hugo Chávez, steeped in leftist ideology, led a failed coup. When he was pardoned two years later he immediately traveled to Havana, where he received a hero’s welcome.
When Chávez won the presidency in 1999, Fidel Castro became both political mentor and godfather.
“To me, Fidel is a father, a companion, a teacher of perfect strategy,” Chávez told Cuba’s Granma newspaper in 2005.
Eventually, Chávez adopted Fidel’s policies and even some of his mannerisms — his penchant for giving marathon speeches — as his own.
“Chávez fell in love politically with Fidel,” said Jesús Seguías, a political analyst who splits his time between Caracas and Tampa. “And Fidel sold Chávez his policies and his list of friends and enemies, even if that list wasn’t convenient for Venezuela.”
Top among those enemies was the United States, which had been Venezuela’s largest trading partner for decades.
Oil for Advisers
Starting in 2000, Caracas began sending about 100,000 barrels of oil per day to prop up the Cuban economy, and Havana sent thousands of military advisers, doctors and other support staff back to the mainland.
The timing was critical for Cuba, as it was emerging from the “special period” after the fall of the Soviet Union left it cash-starved.
“Cuba lived off father Russia until it began living off its son Venezuela,” said Gabriel Reyes, a Caracas-based political analyst.
The two nations grew so close that at one point Chávez suggested they were one and the same.
That revolutionary relationship began to change, however, when Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013 after spending months in Havana under the treatment of Cuban doctors. (Unlike the former presidents who died on his watch, Chávez received 11 days of national mourning.)
For starters, Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, didn’t have the same tight personal relationship, according to analysts, even as they remained ideologically aligned.
Complicating matters is Venezuela’s deep economic crisis. Analysts believe oil exports to Cuba have fallen about 40 percent, to between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels a day, forcing Cuba to, once again, look abroad (including the United States) for sources of economic survival.
Even so, the two men need each other more than ever, said Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
Cuba is fearful that President-elect Donald Trump might begin turning the economic screws when he takes power Jan. 20, and Maduro relies on Cuban expertise and political advisers as he struggles to hold onto power amid economic and social turmoil.
“I think they have lashed pieces of the shipwreck together. They are floating on the same flotsam and jetsam of the two regimes,” Noriega said. “The Cubans are going to see Trump as unwelcoming and hostile … and I think they will throw in with Venezuela like never before.”
At face value it would be absurd for any nation to rely on Venezuela. Squeezed by mismanagement and depressed oil prices, the once-wealthy nation is staggering under skyrocketing inflation and is struggling to keep food and medicine on the shelves.
But keeping with his family analogy, Reyes said it’s all a matter of perspective: “Even as Cuba’s son seems to be economically ruined, he still has more than they do.”
Strengthening that marriage of convenience is the fact that Maduro is a true believer.
Even as Raúl Castro has taken pragmatic steps to open up the economy and tiptoe toward the United States, Maduro continues to preach old-school socialism and anti-imperialism. In the process, Venezuela is looking increasingly like Cuba of old: Venezuela subsidizes basic foodstuffs, even as shortages have spawned massive food lines and forced the country to adopt rationing.
“The Venezuelan government remains chained to the policies that Fidel initially sold to Chávez, even as Cuba itself is walking away from them,” said Seguías. “That’s why Venezuela is suffering the worst crisis in its history, because of those policies.”
And while Maduro is currently engaged in talks with the factions of the opposition, there’s no sign he’s prepared to make the economic or political changes they’re asking for. If anything, he’s digging in.
Reacting to Fidel Castro’s death, Maduro, who often rails about the sanctity of national sovereignty, pledged his loyalty to the late Cuban leader.
“We’re prepared to continue his work and stay standing, to keep walking and stay loyal to him, as he remained loyal despite all the risks,” Maduro said.
Even as Maduro has put Fidel’s death front and center in the country, the nation is too distracted to care, said Reyes.
“Fidel Castro’s death is not on the national agenda,” he said. “It’s definitely not more important than the hunger and devaluation that we’re suffering through.”
In many ways Castro’s demise comes amid a historic turning of the tide, said Jaime Suchlicki, the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Leftist governments throughout Latin America are under pressure, as nations like Brazil and Argentina shift to the right. But in Venezuela at least, Fidel Castro’s ideals are still thriving.
“Maduro will remain loyal to the Cuban revolution in part because that’s his mantle and he sees himself as the heir to Castro and the left in Latin America,” Suchlicki said. “He needs the Cubans and the Cubans need Venezuelan petroleum. It’s a mutual love relationship.”