February 3, 2009
As the American capitalist system struggles to keep its head above water, and left-wing socialism gains ground elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, the leaders in Cuba and Venezuela had much to celebrate as they marked the 50th and tenth anniversaries of their respective revolutions. How things have changed over the past ten years!
In Venezuela, which was a bastion of stable, middle-class democracy until the 1990s, the tenth anniversary of Hugo Chavez's first inauguration -- in February 1999 -- was declared a national holiday. (That was almost exactly seven years after Chavez's first coup attempt, in February 1992.) President-for-life Chavez boasted of all the changes that his government have brought about, some of which are no doubt valid. Poor people do have rights and much improved access to health and educational services, as well as better housing. The question is whether the socialist economic system Chavez has created can be sustained over the long term. The ambition of Hugo Chavez knows no limits, and he often invokes the hero of the wars of independence, Simon Bolivar, implicitly striving to unite Spanish South America under his leadership -- hence the official renaming of the country as the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." The celebration was attended by the presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Honduras, but not Ecuador or Cuba; see below. See BBC.
All is not well in Venezuela these days, however. The falling world price of crude petroleum has put severe strain on the national budget, which is why they temporarily suspended the CITGO heating oil subsidy program last month. Crime and violence in Venezuela are signs of growing social discontent. A referendum on whether Chavez will be allowed to run for another term as president will be held on February 15.
It was on New Year's Day 1959 that Fidel Castro and his ragged band of rebels marched into Havana, as the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista abruptly collapsed. Castro had an ambiguous political background, and it took several months before the widespread suspicions that he intended to pursue a communist agenda were confirmed. By the end of 1959, Castro made it clear that his revolution was following the Marxist-Leninist model pioneered in the Soviet Union.
Castro's regime had many ups and downs over the decades, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1992), Cuba seemed destined to crumble under the weight of a dead ideology. Two things saved communism in Cuba: money from European tourists and subsidies from oil-rich Venezuela, thanks to Hugo Chavez. Without those two factors, it is difficult to imagine that the revolutionary government could have survived for very long in the 21st Century.
There is another, perhaps equally important factor that explains the longevity of Cuban-style communism, however: the mystical force of personality exuded by Fidel Castro himself. The image of a rebel leader standing up against the wicked imperialists resonates deeply throughout Latin America, and Fidel embodied that heroic ideal extremely well. His jaunty attitude, chomping at his cigar, were reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt grinning with a cigarette holder. That, plus his frequent moralistic speeches condemning capitalist extravagance and his apparent simple lifestyle endeared him to many if not most Cuban people. Since Fidel became ill in late July 2006, his brother Raul has taken over as de facto leader, and the transition became official nearly one year ago. Given that the personality aspect is so important to maintaining political order in Cuba, there may be a tumultuous upheaval after Fidel and Raul Castro pass away. That day may not be far off.
The official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, Granma, has a special Web section devoted to commemorating the half century of the Cuban Revolution, coinciding with Fidel Castro's 80th birthday. It includes interviews with dozens of Cuban military commanders, homages from friendly foreign leaders such as Hugo Chavez, and many "fun facts."
President Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, has paid a visit to Russia, which is why he could not attend the celebrations in Venezuela. He met with President Dmitry Medvedev, who recently visited Cuba, as well as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the de facto ruler of Russia. See BBC and Granma. Relations between Cuba and Russia have improved greatly since the Boris Yeltsin was president; the Russian Navy visited Havana in December, bringing back memories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Russia may be tempted to test President Obama's mettle by making some abrupt strategic move in Latin America, much as Sen. Joe Biden warned about during the fall campaign.