Deplaning at Venezuela’s Maiquetía airport on Wednesday morning, Raul Castro, was met with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a visiting head of state from a closely allied nation. Well, almost. As the Cuban flag was hoisted in recognition of his arrival, something quite unexpected happened—it fell off the pole.
Local interpretations of this unexpected turn of events have varied. Was it a signal from disgruntled elements in the armed forces that are rumored to resent the ever-increasing presence of Cuban “advisors”? Was it opposition sabotage? Incompetence? An act of God perhaps? Or maybe just an oddly poetic coincidence?
The only thing certain is that it could have been much worse. In 1958, then Vice-President Richard Nixon arrived in Caracas on a “good will” visit. Engaged by an angry mob upon arrival, Nixon and his wife were yelled at, spat on, and pummeled with rocks. Attempting to flee in their motorcade, the vice president’s car was surrounded by the hoard, rocked until it overturned, and then very nearly set on fire. Local authorities did nothing to intervene.
The savage welcome received by the future first couple can best be understood as the result of years of pent up frustration by Venezuelans. Mere months before the incident took place, the regime of Marco Pérez Jimenez, a brutal military dictator, had been toppled following a rash of massive student-led protests that paralyzed the capital. Perez Jimenez had enjoyed strong ties with the United States: receiving the Legion of Merit from President Eisenhower in 1954 for his “energy and firmness of purpose in the fight against communism” and gracing the cover of TIME magazine the following year under the heading “From Buried Riches, a Golden Rule.” Many Venezuelans blamed the United States for the horrors inflicted upon them by their regime.
Today the country is once again racked by protests and it is Cuba’s relationship to an increasingly unpopular Venezuelan regime that is capable of inspiring such passions. For days leading up to the arrival, rumors of an impending state visit from Castro had circulated wildly on the Twitter feeds and blogs that are the primary source of information for regime opponents in Venezuela’s heavily censored media landscape. Indeed, many of these came bundled with outrage or even menace. Castro’s coming was only confirmed the day of the visit itself, purportedly due to security concerns.
Castro’s visit was tied to a series of official events commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. At a time when Nicolás Maduro is struggling to keep his head above water following weeks of daily demonstrations against his rule, Chávez remains greatly admired by many Venezuelans. Many still speak of the deceased president with epitaphs such as “The Giant,” “The Immortal,” and “The Eternal Comandante.” And with the economy in free fall, crime rampant, shortages of basic goods, and inflation skyrocketing, Maduro’s place as Chávez handpicked successor remains his greatest claim to legitimacy among his support base.
Some Venezuelans are convinced that the very worst violence unleashed on protesters has actually been committed by Cuban plants, not Venezuelan security force personnel.
Yet the festivities come at a bit of an awkward time for Maduro, as his disproportionate use of state and paramilitary forces against unarmed protesters has drawn criticism worldwide. While only a few neighboring countries have dared to speak critically of such measures, there is a sense that they may be keeping their distance. Castro was accompanied by only three other Heads-of-State: Nicaragua, Bolivia and Suriname.
Cuba and Venezuela have a complex history. The year after Perez Jimenez’s fall, Fidel Castro’s insurrection seized power in Cuba. Meanwhile Venezuela experienced four decades of relatively successful democracy, even at a time when most of South America was mired in instability or autocracy. Following an incident in 1967, when Cuban-trained guerrillas landed on the Venezuelan coast and engaged in a firefight with Venezuelan troops, the countries remained at arm’s length.
This changed with the advent of the Chávez government in 1999, which ushered in a new era of rapprochement between the two nations. Well suited ideologically, the regimes were drawn closer together as Venezuela became more estranged from the international status quo on account of its expropriations and bellicose rhetoric. A primary driver for this was the strong personal relationship between Chávez himself and Fidel Castro, a mentor figure whom the younger man would sometimes refer to as “father.”
In 2002, when briefly overthrown in a bloodless coup, Chávez’s one request to his captors was that they send him to Cuba. By 2006, when Chávez redesigned the Venezuelan flag by adding an eighth star, many joked that it was meant to represent the lone star of the Cuban standard.
Chávez’s cancer diagnosis was first made public in 2011, and the sudden need to determine a successor, soon exacerbated preexisting fissures within the ruling United Socialist Party. While many within the regime prioritize maximizing Venezuela’s regional presence and maintaining friendly client governments in poorer countries like Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, there is powerful and influential faction that regards spreading the revolution internationally to be little more than an extravagant waste.
Economically, Cuba has gotten a great deal of financial benefit from the bilateral relationship, estimated to be around five billion dollars a year in cash and carry. Having suffered widespread poverty, and even famine, following the collapse of their previous benefactor, the Soviet Union, maintaining the friendly regime in Caracas is a crucial priority for Havana. Maduro, who spent an academic year at the “school of political education” in Cuba, has been very much Havana’s man from the start, and the government in Havana pushed hard to make sure the crown would be passed to him (in no small part, so that the petro-dollars would continue to flow in their direction.)
Towards reciprocating Venezuela’s generosity, Cuba has sent doctors to ameliorate Venezuela’s loss of medical professionals due to the rise in emigration among its educated classes as well as military and tactical advisors to assist various state agencies and security forces. Many Venezuelans feel that they’ve been getting the shorter end of the stick, and as their country’s own economy continues to implode, the importance of maintaining revolutionary allies, rather than addressing domestic concerns, has become an increasingly tricky argument to convincingly make.
For many, the events of the last few weeks have only intensified perceptions of Cuba as regional boogeyman. As opposition protests against the regime have continued unabated, even in the face of repressive measures, anger toward Cuba has remained a dominant theme. Some Venezuelans are convinced that the very worst violence unleashed on protesters has actually been committed by Cuban plants, not Venezuelan security force personnel.
Whether or not that is true, this very perception speaks volumes about the extent to which many actual Venezuelans blame Cuba for this mess. Perhaps for some, this is simple paranoia or else a way of reconciling national pride with personal frustration by redirecting that passion toward a third party. Then again, given the stakes involved, there is every reason to believe that Havana will do anything in its power to keep Maduro afloat, despite the eagerness of many Venezuelans—even among the ruling socialist party— to see the influence of the Castros, like a cigar butt, stamped out and cast away.