In Venezuela Fidel Castro is inextricably linked to Hugo Chavez and rejected by the majority of the population. For most Venezuelans, Chavez and Castro are both physically and politically dead.
By Gustavo Coronel l December 6, 2016
When Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959 most Venezuelans felt this was also their victory. Millions of dollars had been collected from the Venezuelan people and sent to Castro to buy weapons and equipment. Castro’s victory was significantly helped by Venezuelans who – only a year before – had expelled their own military dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez. I remember giving a monetary contribution to a Venezuelan pro-Fidel group coordinated by an aunt of mine, Margot Briceño Garcia, a leader of the Venezuelan Communist Party. Conservatives such as I also helped to oust Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The first country visited by Fidel Castro after his victory was Venezuela, where he went to give thanks to the people and to meet with the Venezuelan democratically elected president, Romulo Betancourt. They met for almost three hours and, for many years, nothing transpired from this meeting. It was eventually revealed that Fidel Castro had asked Betancourt for a $300 million loan that was denied by Betancourt, on the grounds that the Venezuelan coffers were at a low level. Castro then asked Betancourt for the delivery of subsidized oil and again Betancourt refused, explaining to Castro that Venezuela only had access to a limited volume of its oil production and would have to buy this oil at international prices from the concessionaires working in Venezuela.
Although Betancourt’s reasons were valid, Castro took offense and went back to Cuba empty handed and highly resentful of Betancourt’s refusal to help. He became determined to take his revenge on democratic Venezuela. For almost 50 years, until the arrival of Hugo Chavez to power, he became a virulent enemy of Venezuelan democracy and enjoyed the support of Venezuelans who were trying to destroy democracy from within.
Castro supported the Venezuelan guerrilla movement that tried to overthrow the democratically elected governments of the 1960s. In combination with some members of the Venezuelan left, some of whom are currently in power, he attempted, in 1967, to launch an invasion of Venezuela by a group of Cuban soldiers and Venezuelans trained in Cuba, assisted by Venezuelan leftists on the ground. This attempt was easily controlled by the Venezuelan armed forces, which killed all but two of the invaders. One of the captured invaders, Fernando Soto Rojas, managed to escape to Cuba and many years later became president of Hugo Chavez’s controlled National Assembly.
During the 1960s Venezuelan President Betancourt led a democratic movement in Latin America, supported by outstanding leaders such as Colombia’s Alberto Lleras Camargo and Costa Rica’s Jose Figueres. He joined forces with President John F. Kennedy. Meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1961, they promoted the Alliance for Progress, which helped to defuse Castro’s anti-democratic maneuvers in the region. A major international crisis in 1962, involving the existence of Russian missiles on Cuba soil, ended with Russia’s retreat.
This was a heightened period of tension in the midst of the Cold War, including Latin America.
The defeat of Fidel Castro at the hands of Latin American democratic leaders reinforced regional resentment against the United States among many leftist political leaders that saw in Fidel Castro the leader of anti-Americanism. Betancourt correctly called Fidel Castro the “Caribbean Idi Amin.” However, in the eyes of many Latin Americans, including many Venezuelans, he became a symbol of anti- Americanism. It did not seem to matter that Castro had become a cruel dictator and acted aggressively against democracy in the region. What mattered was that he opposed the big empire of the North, which at one time or another had invaded Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Panama and spoke of Latin America as its backyard. In a region where concepts such as national sovereignty and pride were important, Fidel Castro was perceived by many as their champion. His excesses in Cuba were pardoned. Intellectuals such as Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez came to revere him and they became intimate friends, sharing his exclusive island. Populist Latin American presidents, from Venezuelan Carlos Andres Perez to Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega saw in him a symbol of Latin American “dignity.” Some of these presidents, such as Venezuela’s Perez, were genuine democrats and, yet, shared Castro’s arrogant attitude toward the United States.
In 1989 Carlos Andres Perez was re-elected as president of Venezuela and invited Fidel Castro to his inauguration. About one thousand Venezuelan left leaning intellectuals signed a welcome letter, recognizing him as the supreme leader of Latin American anti-imperialism. Many of those signatories have since changed their position and today see Castro in a different light, as a cruel dictator with blood on his hands, a man obsessed by power, who ruined the lives of three generations of Cubans.
In Venezuela, Fidel Castro is inextricably linked to Hugo Chavez and rejected by the majority of the population. For most Venezuelans, Chavez and Castro are both physically and politically dead.
Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.