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On Dumping a Dictator

The Cuban and Venezuelan-Presidents, Miguel Díaz-Canel y Nicolás Maduro

(courtesy of NUESTRO PAÍS)

It is fairly clear now that despite the colossal mismanagement and immorality of the Maduro regime, and the valiant efforts of the Guaido-led alternative presidency, the Venezuelan dictatorship is not going to being going out of business anytime soon.

There are several reasons for this.

Deposing a dictatorship is a hugely challenging process, especially once it has held power for sufficient time to consolidate its control over the key levers of government. So, the Soviet dictatorship lasted some seventy years. That of the Kim Family in North Korea is now about as old as its Soviet counterpart. Even the less totalitarian Mugabe regime lasted thirty-seven years.

Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany endured only twelve years but it took a transformative event – his country’s defeat in World War II – to take him down. There is no such transformative event on the horizon for Maduro.

Another reason is that dictatorships, while invariably awful, tend not to be dumb, however much democrats may think they are. For example, the Venezuelan dictatorship gave the country’s military in a key role in the management of the country’s oil industry in an attempt, thus far largely successful, to secure its loyalty. In this, they copied the experience of the Cuban leadership when then Minister of Defence Raul Castro assigned the operation of the tourist sector, a crucial sector of the island’s economy, to the military.

And then we have to take into account that while dictatorships can end up fighting one another, they also for the most part seek to cooperate, in particular, in dealing with democratic states. Today, we are witness to an emerging Authoritarian International, headed by Russia. This brings together states as diverse as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and the Philippines, all of which tend to be ideologically supportive of the Maduro regime. The sitting American President seems interested in joining this group – he certainly seems to admire its leading figures.

At the same time, there is a parallel circle of cooperation among the remaining communist states – Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and mainland China.

So, for example, Cuba and North Korea have supported each other ideologically since 1960 when they concluded a Friendship Treaty.

The evolving Russia-China entente provides a broader framework for mutual assistance between the states involved in these two groupings. One factor that unites these states is their common interest in weakening the US-led Western world and in promoting a multipolar construct in which the likes of Russia and China will co-lead, if not dominate. Another factor is the socio-economic similarities of the states in the two groups. Like in 1939, authoritarians of the right and the left are showing themselves capable of working together for what they consider to be a common good.

This dynamic is clearly at work in the Venezuelan-Cuban relationship. Cuba has provided crucial support to Venezuela since shortly after Hugo Chavez launched his Bolivarian revolution in 1999. Officially, Havana and Caracas have had a deal whereby the former has provided low-cost medical personnel to Venezuela and the latter low-cost petroleum to Cuba. This petroleum has provided critically important resources to the dysfunctional Cuban economy, which hit a historic low point after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Venezuela’s ability to support Cuba has been called into question as the price of oil has fallen from US $110 per barrel in 2014 to $30 in 2015. But notwithstanding the partial rebound of the oil price to $70 in 2018, the Venezuelan oil sector has continued its slide, starved of resources and bereft of expert personnel that have fled as the military and political associates of Maduro have taken over management, and the situation in their country has gone from bad to worse to even much more worse.

As part of their cooperation, the Cubans have helped Venezuela create a militia force known as los colectivos, which it has trained and equipped. The existence of this militia force complicates any potential move from outside to try to take down the Maduro regime.

But it goes beyond that. According to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, the largest multilateral body for states of the northern hemisphere, over 20,000 Cubans have infiltrated the Venezuelan government, including the much-feared intelligence service SEBIN, where they play a key role in protecting President Maduro in what is for him an increasingly precarious security environment. Just how many of these Cubans are really only medical personnel, which Havana asserts to be the case, and how many are security actors or those with a dual-role is unclear.

As for the big guys, China and Russia have supported the Maduro regime politically, ideologically, militarily and financially. Both countries have participated in military exercises with Venezuela. Beijing has lent Caracas some fifty billion dollars; Russia only ten billion. But Russia made up for its comparatively small financial input with the deployment of some one hundred troops to Venezuela in March at the height of the country’s ongoing political crisis.

Against this background, matters have not been helped by the fractured and dysfunctional Western response to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. So, the US President followed up threats of a military intervention in Venezuela with a telephone conversation with Putin in which everything appeared to be hunky-dory as concerned their approaches to the country’s ongoing crisis. This will probably have sent the message to the Venezuela opposition that nothing could be expected from Washington. In fact, Trump’s threats of a US military intervention may have helped Maduro in his efforts to consolidate his dictatorship.

At the same time, the Lima Group which brings together thirteen Latin American countries plus Canada that have recognized the Guaido Presidency has been championing the need for dialogue. This is surely necessary. But dialogue in itself, as recently argued by Venezuelan pundit Moises Naim, is not going to resolve anything unless it is backed up by a resolve to transform things on the ground while displaying a credible capacity to do so. The talks between the two sides currently being sponsored by Norwegian governments are likely to remain just that: talks.

It was from this perspective that in a recent blog I called for the creation of safe havens along the borders of Colombia/Venezuela and other bordering states where the latter’s beleaguered population could find food, health care and education, and where political forces dedicated to the creation of another Venezuela could organize and plan for an alternative future. This is admittedly a challenging proposition, but there is no simple option for front-line states such as Columbia. Venezuela’s neighbours need to mount a credible multilateral response or face growing domestic instability in a way not dissimilar to what European Union states have had to contend with since the refugee surge of 2015.

All this is complicated by the fact that Western politicians do not tend to see the interconnections and strategic dependencies between Cuba and Venezuela. So, recently, Canadian Foreign Minister Christa Freeland travelled to Havana, her official writ being to enlist Cuba in an effort to change the political dynamic in Venezuela. Really?

As recently suggested by a journalist writing for Diario de Cuba, Venezuela and Cuba are akin to two climbers clutching to the same cord: if one falls, so the other will. I think this is right on. For the time being, however, it does not seem that either of the climbers will take a fall.

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