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Cuba - Venezuela: What will Chávez do after Castro is gone?

By Carlos Alberto Montaner -

Tue, Oct. 26, 2004 - I begin by describing my sources without giving their names: They are people placed by Fidel Castro around Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Their task is to help the colonel to build, slowly and patiently, a totalitarian state.

By this time, they lack ideological convictions. They know that what they do is morally unjustifiable and politically harebrained, but they find themselves trapped in that world where human loyalty, fear of the future and life's inertia come together.

After a lifetime of obedience to the comandante, they find it difficult to break with custom. They have learned to live docilely amid the most absolute contradictions.

According to them, Chávez is currently experiencing what psychiatrists call ''conflicting emotions.'' The news of Castro's ill health -- some say that he's suffering from advanced prostate cancer -- worries Chávez greatly, but he seems pleased by the idea of becoming the visible leader of the Left in Latin America.

It is true that, to a great degree, Chávez owes his permanence in power to the political and police backing provided by Castro, his admired supporter. But for narcissistic personalities, gratitude is always a very complicated feeling. The help that Chávez has needed and received from Castro is also proof of his own weakness, and such realities are not easily forgiven.

This background -- and an imprudent aside by Cuban Minister Felipe Pérez Roque -- explains some peculiar recent events. A few days ago, both governments hastened to sign several cooperation agreements, a strange formality unbecoming to two states that have characterized themselves by their improvisation and chaos.

Why? Because Castro knows that relations between the two countries are not based on institutional ties but on fragile personal links that can weaken after his death and may disappear altogether.

Castro is the teacher who does not overly respect the student thrust upon him by fate, while Chávez is the tortuously grateful disciple. Both feel and act like enlightened chieftains who need not account to anyone for their actions because no one has the authority to judge them.

Castro, of his own will -- in an operation coordinated by his closest advisors, the so-called young Talibans -- sends thousands of doctors, dentists, technicians, policemen and propaganda material to Venezuela, a contribution that displeases a lot of people in Cuba, while Chávez, of his own thoughtless will, ships to the island between 63,000 and 70,000 barrels of free crude oil every day, a compassionate revolutionary solidarity that doesn't generate much joy among Venezuelans, either.

In any case, what will happen to those mutually ruinous links the moment that Castro disappears? It is likely that whoever inherits power in Cuba after Castro's death -- even if it is his brother Raúl, who does not suffer from Fidel's Napoleonic drive -- will concentrate on maintaining control over the national calabooses and forget all about planetary adventures.

Simultaneously in Venezuela, what's predictable is that Chávez, absent the moral pressure from his mentor, will rethink the subject of subsidies to Cuba. Why continue to support a regime that has lost its single political capital, the enormous anthropological interest raised by Castro over half a century of propaganda and photogenic eccentricities?

No doubt it will be an interesting wake, whose consequences will be felt throughout the Caribbean Basin. The complex funerary rites are already being prepared.

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