Hugo Chavez is Cuba’s indispensable favorite in Venezuela’s presidential ballot this weekend, with the rulers of the communist island aware their survival could ride on the firebrand leader’s re-election.
Headlines in the Cuban press proclaim a Chavez victory “irreversible,” but many citizens have followed the campaign through fear that his defeat would plunge Cuba back into the dark days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
For 12 years, Venezuela has supported Cuba, with Chavez providing the Castro regime with cheap oil.
Havana’s ally also takes in 40,000 Cuban professionals, particularly in healthcare, a vital source of financial support.
Whether they agree with Chavez or not, Cubans know that a victory by Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on Sunday “would cut the umbilical cord,” Cuban dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said.
“The moribund Cuban economy is staying afloat with Venezuelan aid. If that umbilical cord is cut, it would be a disaster,” the former political prisoner said.
“By a very high margin, the [Cuban] population is very worried about that,” he said.
Juan Miguel Estevez, 46, a retired police officer, echoed the concern.
“Of course we are worried. If Venezuela goes down, we fall back into what happened to us after the Soviet Union, head first into crisis. Nobody wants that,” he said.
Venezuela provides Cuba with about two-thirds of its energy needs, according to Jorge Pinon, a Cuba expert at the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.
“Cuba currently consumes approximately 147,000 barrels of oil a day and produces approximately 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day, which means a deficit of about 100,000 barrels a day, supplied by Venezuela,” he said in a report on Cuba’s energy future.
Additionally, the Venezuelan state oil giant PDVSA is actively involved in offshore oil exploration in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, albeit without success for the moment.
Exports of Cuban professionals to Venezuela brings in about US$6 billion a year, more than the island’s two other sources of hard currency — tourism and remittances from Cubans living abroad — which each bring in US$2.5 billion.
Venezuela is Cuba’s leading trade partner and they share annual transactions valued at US$6 billion, three quarters of it in Caracas’ favor.
The cooperation deals touch on a wide variety of sectors in the communist island nation’s economy, with US$1.6 billion invested in 47 Cuban agriculture, education and health projects so far this year.