By William Tucker
Venezuela is typically a poor country in the best of times despite its oil reserves. The economic situation in the South American country declined significantly in the past year and the uncertainty over President Hugo Chavez’s health hasn’t helped. A lot of this has to do with how Chavez structured the nation’s political apparatus in the wake of the 2002 coup attempt. Caracas now runs almost entirely at the whim and will of Chavez. The president’s recent battle with cancer, in which he received the bulk of his treatment in Cuba, was cause for concern for those invested in the Chavez regime. This investment goes well beyond Venezuela’s borders, and in fact, can be found in Tehran, and to a much great extent, in Havana.
When discussing Cuba on the world stage it’s often best to start by discussing the U.S. A little over a year ago, I wrote an article discussing the importance of the Gulf coast in response to the BP oil spill. This article highlighted the strategic and economic importance of the Mississippi river and the port of New Orleans – which happens to be the fifth largest port in the world. The U.S. is rather secure from conventional attacks on its borders and coast lines, but the Gulf coast, which Cuba bisects, can become vulnerable to blockade. Cuba can only do this with support from a major military power, however. This would potentially cut off over a fifth of the U.S. economy. As a result of this vulnerability, Washington has taken a rather aggressive approach to Cuba which has gone from political domination to outright hostility. It’s not an accident that Cuba was the location that nearly sparked a third world war.
For its part, Cuba must either maintain amicable relations with the U.S. or work with another major power that could balance Washington. This was possible during the Cold War with the patronage of the Soviet Union, but that has since ended. Cuba’s economy is in shambles, and further compounding the problem is the U.S. maintains an embargo over the island nation. Making matters worse, Cuban law is not conducive to foreign investment. The best Havana could hope for was an agreement with their fellow travelers in Venezuela. This agreement was finally solidified in 2000 which had Venezuela supplying Cuba with over 50,000 barrels of crude per day (expanded to 90,000 in 2004), while Cuba provided expertise in the medical, machining, and security fields. Chavez took advantage of this agreement by expanding the Cuban presence in Venezuela’s military and intelligence branches, but this came with a price – expanded Cuban political influence within the Chavez regime.
This deal between the two countries has created such interdependency that it is difficult to see one government surviving without the other. Venezuela has tried to diversify some of its economic needs by courting other nations hostile to the U.S., such as Iran and Russia, but Russia is cautious about investing in a region where it has little interest. Iran on the other hand doesn’t have much capital to spend outside of pursuing its own interests. China has made several investments in Venezuela, but it too is concerned about the sometimes reckless behavior exhibited by Caracas.
The U.S. Department of Defense submitted a report to Congress in April 2010 on the military capabilities of Iran. In this report, DOD concluded that a significant presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah have been operating in Venezuela with the cooperation of the Chavez regime. The presence of the Quds Force, along with elements of Hezbollah, is merely another avenue by which Iran can increase its presence in South America. What makes the cooperation with Venezuela stand out is the close proximity to the U.S. and U.S. interests in Colombia. Caracas and Tehran have been working closely on other intelligence matters including a specially chartered flight that makes regular trips between Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Venezuela. Operations such as these flights allow for the transfer of money and weapons without the ability of interested Western intelligence services knowing exactly what is going on with any ease. U.S. operations in the Middle East have taken an Iran specific orientation and the ability of Iran to spread its capabilities to other continents presents a challenge to U.S. intelligence. Furthermore, Iran could use its presence in South America as a platform to launch retaliatory attacks against the U.S. should Washington decide to militarily attack Iran over its nuclear program.
Although cooperation between Iran and Venezuela is apparent on many levels, it does not reach the interdependency that Venezuela and Cuba share. To put it another way, Cuba and Venezuela have many overlapping interests and intertwined economic ventures, while Iran and Venezuela simply share a hostile view of the U.S. What this means to Iran is that while Caracas may cooperate by hosting Quds Force members on its soil, it will likely try to distance itself from any direct covert action against the U.S. that would invite retaliation against Venezuela. Although Venezuela does make vitriolic statements toward the U.S., it doesn’t want to take that hostile attitude to any higher level.
In Caracas, Cuba is King
If Venezuela is cautious about Iranian activities on its soil, Cuba is doubly so. With such economic turmoil taking place on the island, Cuba had to reach out to someone that wouldn’t put its revolution at risk. That partner turned out to be Venezuela. For Cuba it wasn’t enough to simply sign a few agreements and hope for the best in the relationship. Instead, the Castro brother’s wanted to ensure they would be in the driver’s seat in any engagement. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union taught Havana that relationships between nations are rarely conducted via mutual respect, even among ideological companions. Cuba would go on to ensure its cooperation with its allies would benefit their country first, and if possible, help stabilize revolutionary upstarts. Cuba would go on to hone this approach to spreading the revolution in parts of South America and Africa – often to the determent of the indigenous parties.
Cuba today is not the Cuba of the Cold War. Without subsidies from the Soviet Union and a total lack of foreign investment Cuba is in disastrous shape. This is why they felt the need to entangle themselves with the likes of Venezuela. Although Cuba has made some very cautious overtures to the U.S. in hopes of starting some sort of meaningful dialog, Havana is hedging its bets. To be sure, it’s not guaranteed that the lifting of the U.S. embargo, or even U.S. investment for that matter, could turn the Cuban economy around. Regardless, Cuba is getting desperate and the U.S. doesn’t, at least at present, feel compelled to deal directly with Cuba. What this all means vis-a-vis Iran is that Cuba will not tolerate any action from Iranian forces that would undermine Cuban interests in Venezuela, nor undermine attempts to talk with the U.S. Caracas, and to a much lesser extent Havana, may feel a need to work with Iran on some levels; however they cannot risk upsetting the very delicate economic balance that is keeping both Latin American nations afloat. Any disruption of the balance between Venezuela and Cuba could lead to the downfall of both regimes.