Chavez's Death Will Have Ramifications For Cuba

The death of President Hugo Chavez could mean as much for Cuba as it will for Venezuela. The Chavez government has heavily subsidized Cuba.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The death of Hugo Chavez could mean as much for Cuba as it will for Venezuela. As we just heard, Chavez looked to Fidel Castro for inspiration, and Castro has supplied Venezuela with thousands of Cuban doctors, health workers and security specialists. In return, Chavez sent a massive amount of Venezuelan oil to Cuba at cut-rate prices, and thus helped keep the Cuban economy afloat during years of crisis.

Joining us now is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with these Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba. How important have they been?

GJELTEN: Really important, Renee. We're talking about close to 100,000 barrels of oil going to Cuba per day. Now, at $90 a barrel, we can do the math and see what that is worth. Now, Cuba has been charged for it, but as you said, it's been paying a cut-rate price, and 100,000 barrels a day is more than Cuba needs. So it's been reselling much of that oil, maybe as much as 40 percent of that oil, and reselling it at market prices.

So Cuba is earning a lot of hard currency off that oil, just the same as it did with Soviet oil shipments back in the old days. And this is, in fact, what has really saved the Cuban economy in the last few years. Plus, as you said, all these doctors, teachers, coaches, security officers that Cuba has sent to Venezuela, Venezuela is paying for them, paying their salaries, and the money is going to the Cuban government. So that's an important source money for Cuba.

MONTAGNE: OK. So Chavez had a close relationship with Fidel, and subsequently with Fidel's brother Raul. He went to Cuba for his medical treatment once Chavez was diagnosed with cancer. Do we know whether his designated successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, would maintain that close relationship?

GJELTEN: Well, of course, Renee, he would first have to be elected as Chavez's successor. And as the vice president, he has taken over for now, but there will be new elections within 30 days. It does appear he has a good chance of being reelected, if only because of the sympathy for Hugo Chavez. So assuming he is the next president, yes, he is likely to try to maintain that relationship with Cuba.

There are a couple - three factions in the Venezuelan political system, some more aligned with the military, some more aligned with the business. Nicolas Maduro is part of the faction, the leader of the faction that is most closely aligned with Cuba. The problem is that this has been an expensive relationship for Venezuela, and it is Maduro's misfortune - as Jon Lee Anderson said - to be taking over at a time of great economic stress in Venezuela.

He might be hard-pressed to keep the level of largess that Chavez has maintained for Cuba. Without Chavez's charismatic and political appeal, he may be tempted to cut back on that in order to spend more of those resources in Venezuela and maintain his standing with the Venezuelan population.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, could this potential loss of Venezuelan aid threaten the Raul Castro government in Cuba? I mean, how will it affect Cuba?

GJELTEN: Well, we know that after the loss of Soviet aid in the early '90s, there was huge discontent in Cuba. And now we are potentially looking at something similar. This could be, in some ways, even more traumatic. I mean, Cuba's economic and physical infrastructure has deteriorated in recent years. On the other hand, Cuba has also diversified its investment. It is getting aid from other countries, including China.

It's hard to say. It could be destabilizing.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten, speaking to us on the death of Hugo Chavez.

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