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Opposition-Minded Venezuelans Have Their Say on the Legacy of Cuba's Fidel Castro


Cartoon drawn by Venezuelan artist Edo Sanabria. Taken from his Facebook page and used with permission.

In the era of Castro-inspired homages, debates, farewells and even celebrations that is still going strong in the Americas, Venezuelans have also had their say on the Cuban communist icon's legacy.

For Venezuelans, Fidel Castro and his Cuba loom large. To some, Castro is the inspiration for the Venezuelan revolution and its socialist course in the 21st century, and a personal hero of late President Hugo Chavez. For opponents of the political processes put into action by Chavez, both the ideology and its representatives are toxic, bearing responsibility for the economic and political storm that has been shaking Venezuela in recent years.

President Nicolas Maduro was quick to call for three days of national mourning after Castro's death on November 25, a move criticized by the opposition. Following the passing of Chavez in 2013 and now Castro, Chavismo suddenly seems like an ideology rooted in the past and shorn of leadership, amid one of the worst economic crises in the republic's history.

For authors like Rafael Rojas, Fidel is a symbol of precisely this failed economic model: 

Hasta ahora, en Cuba, la política económica y las relaciones internacionales se han subordinado a la reproducción de un régimen totalitario. En los últimos años, la propia dirigencia de la isla tuvo que reconocer que el saldo fue desfavorable para la economía, ya que hereda un país improductivo y dependiente, tecnológicamente atrasado, donde crecen la desigualdad y la pobreza. 

So far, in Cuba, economic policy and international relations have been subordinated to the reproduction of a totalitarian regime. In the last years, the government of the island itself had to recognize the toll [of socialism] on the economy, since they inherited a country that is unproductive and dependent, technologically retarded, where inequalities and poverty are in the rise.

For online authors like Aglaia Berlutti, Castro's legacy is seen in terms of human rights violations. She takes the case of former Venezuelan political prisoner Araminta Gonzalez, who was recently released, but suffered from different kinds of torture during his time in incarceration. Berlutti likens Gonzalez's case to Castro's own strategies to keep dissidents under control:

Cuando Fidel Castro conoció a Hugo Chávez, le prometió que le «enseñaría» cómo llegar «a la utopía». […] Según Luis Miquilena, Chávez aprendió bien pronto que había que imponer «mano dura» a la oposición. Lo hizo bien aconsejado por Fidel, que ya entonces aprovechaba la generosidad vulgar y vanidosa de un líder que escuchó todos sus halagos y los transformó en adoración y una peligrosa idolatría. Chávez era una pieza de barro de forma, a punto de entrar a la historia como parte de un proyecto desdibujado y confuso. Fidel supo aprovechar el momento.

When Fidel Castro met Hugo Chavez, he promised to “teach him” how to get to “Utopia”. According to Luis Miquilena [a political adviser to the late president], Chavez learnt quite early to treat the opposition with a “heavy hand”. He did it while being well advised by Fidel, who had already started taking advantage of the vulgar generosity of a leader that listened to all his compliments and [returned them] with adoration, and a dangerous idolatry. Chavez was a piece of soft clay, ready to enter history as a part of a blurred and confusing project. Fidel knew how to seize the moment.

She concluded:

¿Qué aprendió Chávez de Fidel? El odio. La violencia contra la disidencia. Y sobre todo, la noción que el control necesita balas, terror y sangre. Esa es la «gran herencia histórica» de un monstruo ideológico que impuso a fuego y balas un sistema político fallido en Cuba y después, manipuló a un líder carismático y vanidoso como Hugo Chávez para obtener beneficio de un país rico e ignorante como el nuestro.

What did Chavez learn from Fidel? Hate. Violence against dissidents. And most of all, that notion that to be able to control you need bullets, fear and blood. This is is the “great historical heritage” of an ideologic monster that imposed a failed political system with fire and bullets and afterwards, manipulated a charismatic and vain leader like Hugo Chavez in order to obtain benefits from a rich and ignorant country like ours.

Marcos de Rojas analyzes the costs of the relationship between the two countries and the ways in which they have had to pay a high price to follow a common political goal:

Aunque a lo largo de la segunda mitad del XX más de un grupo se apoyó en el mito fidelista para lograr sus propios objetivos políticos, el caso de Venezuela es el más importante. Las consecuencias de copiar un fenómeno sui géneris como la Cuba post 1959 las podemos percibir hoy más que nunca en una país rico, que está en ruinas, dividido y aislado. No obstante, el costo de esa relación para los cubanos también fue alto; médicos, educadores y recursos que bien se hubieran podido utilizar en Cuba, se cambiaron por petróleo, y ese costo ahora es mayor ya que la capacidad política y organizativa de Maduro es dependiente de La Habana. Venezuela le dio aire a un régimen que no tenía mucho más capital que su historia y así ganó preciosos años para poder organizar el tránsito hacia el capitalismo de Estado que hoy se va consolidando.

Even if along the second half of the 20th century, more than one group used Fidel's myth to support their own political goals, the case of Venezuela is the most important. The consequences of copying a sui generis phenomenon like that of Cuba after 1959 can be seen today more than ever in a rich country in ruins, divided and isolated. Nevertheless, the cost of that relationship was also high for Cuba: doctors, educators and resources that could have been used in Cuba were exchanged for oil and now that cost is bigger now that [current President Nicolás] Maduro's political and organizational capacity is dependent on Havana. Venezuela gave air to a regime that had not much more capital than its history and thus helped it gain precious years to be able to organize a transition a to state capitalism system that is being consolidated today.

Luis Figuera, on the other hand, underlines the ways in which, beyond the critiques, Castro's legacy is still the base of political thought and discourses that can be applied beyond socialist countries:

No es exagerado afirmar que el pensamiento revolucionario de las dos últimas generaciones en América, lo tiene como una referencia obligada, no sólo por la verticalidad y la dignidad de sus actos, sino por su flexibilidad para moverse en el escenario de las grandes decisiones mundiales. ¿Cuántos dirigentes derechistas admiran en secreto al comandante Fidel?, ¿Cuántos revolucionarios lo citan a diario en sus discursos?

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to argue that revolutionary thought in the last two generations in the Americas have him as an inevitable reference, not only for the rectitude and the dignity of his acts, but also due to his flexibility to move on the stage where great world decisions are being made. How many right-wing leaders admire comandante Fidel in secret? How many revolutionaries quote him daily in their speeches?

These ideas can probably be well summed up in Venezuelan cartoonist Weill's work on the day of Castro's death:

[In the image: Coke and rum say “Fidel's death!”; Angostura bitters: “But he had his way”]

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