“In 2000, the two countries signed an agreement whereby Venezuela would send Cuba an initial 53,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for the “gratuitous medical services” of “Cuban specialist doctors and health care technicians.” In 2012, Chávez claimed there were over 44,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, ophthalmologists, and therapists working in seven “medical missions” in Venezuela. Julio César Alfonso, an exiled Cuban doctor, describes such missions, which were replicated at a smaller scale in dozens of other countries, as “a booming business for the Cuban government, and a form of modern slavery.” In fact, the state’s earnings, which accounted for the equivalent of USD $6.4 billion in 2018— nearly twice the amount Cubans received from cash remittances—hinge on allowing the medical personnel to keep, at best, a mere quarter of their wages based on the amount Cuba receives per professional.
The humanitarian facade concealed a silent invasion. In 2018, Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, revealed that at least 22,000 Cubans had infiltrated the Venezuelan state, particularly the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. The infamous Helicoide in Caracas, the headquarters of this ruthless spy agency that Chávez created in 2009, is a well-known torture chamber. According to a 2019 CASLA Institute study, members of Cuba’s Intelligence Directorate, commonly known as G2, had their own base of operations in Caracas and were directly involved in the Venezuelan regime’s systematic use of torture against political opponents. Under expert Cuban guidance, Venezuela even turned its intelligence services “on its own armed forces, instilling fear and paranoia and quashing dissent,” as Reuters reported in 2019.
Cuban operatives also have provided security for both Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. In 2019, when journalist Jorge Ramos and his Univision colleagues were held by Maduro’s forces after an aborted interview attempt in the Miraflores Palace, team members detected the Cuban accents of several men within the dictator’s innermost security circle.
If the two countries had become “a single nation,” as Chávez himself assured in 2007, it was because Cuba, that bastion of anti-imperialist Latin American dignity, turned the far larger and richer Venezuela into a colony. Rich, that is, until Cuban and Cuba-backed communists took over. In 2001, at the outset of Chávez’s presidency, Venezuela was South America’s richest country; recently, it was declared poorer than Haiti.
As Venezuela spiraled toward its humanitarian collapse, colonial policy dictated that Fidel Castro’s successors at the helm of the Cuban regime—initially his brother Raul, thereafter Communist Party bureaucrat Miguel Díaz-Canel—summon all their mastery in the arts of intimidation to keep Maduro in power. The Cubans were instrumental in suppressing the massive protests against Chavismo in 2017; in implementing the “revolving-door” technique, whereby certain political prisoners are set free while new ones are incarcerated; and in luring the hapless opposition into dead-end negotiations each time the regime was against the wall. Over the years, in fact, I’ve seen enough reports about Maduro’s certain downfall so as to take the recent, euphoric assurances about the Cuban dictatorship’s imminent end with a grain of salt.
Whether or not the current protests in Cuba endanger the tyranny, they do contain several levels of irony. Not least since the regime that exports doctors and nurses as if they were commodities and touts its decrepit health care system as a global example, fooling gullible Western intellectuals such as Michael Moore, is now facing popular unrest due, in large part, to a severe health care crisis. Although the media has claimed that the pandemic brought the Cuban health care system to the brink of breakdown, this is nothing new. In 2015, a PanAm Post reporter visited a Havana hospital undercover, only to find shortages of basic medical supplies, improvised stretchers, filthy bathrooms lacking doors or toilet paper, wards staffed only by medical students, and patients forced to supply their own sheets, pillows, and medicine. In recent weeks, heightened attention and a broader use of social media tools have made this reality evident to anyone willing to pay attention.”