As global trends pushed Cuba's chronically depressed economy into a devastating crisis, the island faced one of two scenarios. On the one hand, a popular reaction "sparked by a growing scarcity of goods, with street protests and possible riots as a general rehearsal for a great national uprising." On the other, "a conspiracy of high-ranking military officers," whose leaders fear that an unyielding communist dictator "will drag them all down as the regime falters."
So wrote Cuban exile Carlos Alberto Montaner in 1994. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which had kept Cuba barely afloat—but only by subsidizing around 23 percent of its GDP between 1985 and 1988—had dealt dictator Fidel Castro a serious blow. Desperate, he promised that "the island would sink into the sea before capitalism returns." Castro's insistence on maintaining Cuban communism intact even as relics of the Berlin Wall traveled the world in the form of commercial memorabilia elicited paleontological metaphors. Portuguese President Mário Soares referred to Castro as a political dinosaur; "a respected species, albeit endangered." ABC, a Spanish newspaper, went a step further and branded Castro "the last tyrannosaurus." The end seemed nigh. "Cuban communism," wrote Montaner, "doesn't have the slightest chance of prevailing without Moscow's constant and nourishing tutelage."
Alas, the closest thing to a mass revolt in post-Soviet Cuba was a protest at Havana's esplanade, the Malecón, by several hundred people in 1994. The so-called Maleconazo saw a huge turnout against the regime by the island's totalitarian standards, but it wasn't exactly the Storming of the Bastille. Castro, however, feared the evident unease enough to allow tens of thousands of Cubans to embark north on precarious rafts, a rehash of the Mariel boatlift tactics of 1980, when 125,000 seafaring refugees, among them many convicts, unleashed an immigration crisis in South Florida.
The longed-for officers' coup against Castro, an undying hope of the exile community in Miami, proved to be as elusive as a popular insurrection. Perhaps even more so given that Castro, after seizing power in 1959, had turned the Cuban military into a highly ideologized, fiercely loyal force, where allegiance to orthodox communism and to Castro himself was the sine qua non of promotion. As one scholar wrote in 1976, graduates of the Cuban military academy, 90 percent of whom were members of the Communist Party, had been drilled with "the principles of Marxism-Leninism" and "an almost Maoist orientation toward the role of consciousness." Indoctrination aside, Montaner explained, Cuba's military was not an independent, republican institution, but rather a body which the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, created, "with more traits of a leader's personal band than of official armed forces."
Fidel Castro survived the Cold War by turning Cuba, a country that was on the cusp of development in 1959, into an impoverished barnacle parasitically attached to the Soviet mother ship. Parasitism again saved Castro not long after the USSR became history. In 1994, as many predicted Castro's imminent demise, the tyrant paid an official tribute in Havana to a former Venezuelan lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez, who had led a failed yet bloody coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. During the lavish ceremony, Castro applauded as Chávez, fresh out of jail after receiving a pardon from Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera, hailed Cuba as "a bastion of Latin American dignity." He also proclaimed his intentions to launch "a revolutionary project" and to turn all of Latin America "into the single nation that we are."
Only four years later, Castro's new protege was elected president of Venezuela, the country that would have the world's largest oil reserves by 2010. In 2011, Venezuela was covering 61 percent of Cuba's energy needs with a constant and increasing oil supply, exporting an average of 105,000 barrels per day to the island between 2007 and 2014. In return for such largesse, Cuba exported to Venezuela its own comparative advantage, refined for decades under Castro's unparalleled expertise: namely, political repression of the most brutal variety, albeit under the guise of revolutionary humanitarianism.
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.
Another irony is that, while Chávez referred to Cuba as an inspiration to the Latin American youth—to this day, an image of serial killer Che Guevara overlooks the main square at Colombia's National University—it is now the young, tech-savvy Cubans, some of them prominent artists, who are denouncing the regime most effectively. Perhaps it's the inevitable effect of depriving the TikTok generation of internet access, let alone the most basic liberties, which they now demand. Perhaps Castro's death as a nonagenarian despot in 2016 and his eventual replacement with Díaz-Canel, a drab, middle-aged apparatchik, exhausted any remnants of the Cuban revolution's youthful charm of the 1950s, when The New York Times' Herbert L. Matthews praised Castro as "the rebel leader of Cuba's youth," and Castro assured a star-struck Ed Sullivan that Fulgencio Batista would "be the last dictator of Cuba."
Finally, there is the boomerang nature of the current protests. In late 2019, as vandals destroyed public infrastructure and private property across much of Santiago, Chile's capital, Maduro claimed that "the plan" he and his allies had concocted some months earlier at the São Paulo Forum, an annual gathering of left-wing parties, was working "perfectly." One of his underlings bragged that a "Bolivarian breeze" was blowing across the region. These weren't empty boasts; Venezuela and Cuba have certainly fomented mayhem in South America's constitutional republics. In May, as violent protests engulfed Colombia, that country's government expelled a Cuban diplomat for carrying out "activities that were incompatible" with his diplomatic role. Now that Cuba's supposedly submissive population is bravely standing up for its freedom in Havana itself, rumors abound of Cubans stationed in Venezuela being summoned back to the island to quash the rebellion. It's a classic case of imperial overreach, much like that of Spartans lording it over much of Greece, only to face a sudden helot revolt at home.
It was a Greek historian, Polybius, who described the cyclical nature of revolutions: In their various forms, one-man rule, oligarchy, and democracy tend to succeed one another. With time, even the Cuban Revolution might see its tyrants fall.