Now that the Venezuelan government has deployed the military and national guard, it's threatening to liberate neighborhoods from protesters (and, presumably, from any residents who happen to get caught in the crossfire). The deployment of armed troops in a conflict like this often marks a point at which protests either start to taper off or explode with renewed violence. And opposition figures are calling for Venezuelans to once again flood the streets this weekend.
Recently, opposition to President Nicolás Maduro — arguably the most famous bus driver since Ralph Cramden — and his government widened to include demonstrations outside the Cuban embassy, where protestors started decrying the involvement of Cuban military and security personnel in the suppression of the protests. Now, it's no secret that there are very close ties between Cuba and Venezuela, but Cuban troops engaging in heavy-handed crowd control on Venezuelan citizens would be another matter.
A February 16 report claimed that Cuban troops were arriving in the country to support Maduro and the government. These troops were supposedly equipped with the riot dispersal agent Adamsite (also known as DM), which is a non-lethal but vomit-inducing gas. Two days later, Uberto Mario, a Miami-based reporter and former Cuban intelligence agent, said that Cuban Special Forces units known as the Black Wasps had arrived in Venezuela to support the government. Then on March 10, it emerged that Cuban troops were allegedly being airlifted to Venezuela, where they were dressed in the uniforms of the Venezuelan National Guard, and then told to make themselves useful by controlling some of those crowds.
When evaluating unconfirmed reports such as these, analysts must always ask themselves one fundamental question: So is this all bullshit or what?
Certainly no conclusive evidence of the deployment has surfaced. It's difficult to assess the reliability and accuracy of Mario, who is supposed to be a go-to expert on the doings of the Cuban intelligence community. Here's what we do know: Eight seconds into his video interview, it's plain to see that he's speaking Spanish with the top of his shirt is unbuttoned. Also, he is holding a cigar. These developments would seem to indicate that he is Cuban. The cigar, while well-chewed, is unlit. There is no telling what that means.
People living under oppressive Latin American regimes often have no access to reliable media reports or to outside information, and so they understandably elevate gossip to levels rarely seen outside high schools. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, there's a grain of truth behind the rumors.
One of Cuba’s largest exports is rental Cubans — the doctors, skilled professionals, and other civilians that Havana sends to countries that don't have enough of their own doctors, skilled professionals, etc. Venezuela is one of those countries, and it has rented more than 30,000 head of Cubans, which has netted the Cuban government more than $6 billion in cash. This makes the Castros the most successful human resources managers in the universe.
Venezuela also reportedly hosts up to 7,000 Cuban military and intelligence advisors. "Cuba offers training to Venezuela’s troops (and, according to some reports, to the colectivos)," said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are numerous high-ranking Cuban officials in different Venezuelan ministries, and Cuba has allegedly aided high-ranking Venezuelan officials in the quest to develop relationships with the FARC in Colombia."
Interestingly, the existence of Cuban personnel in Venezuela has persuaded some observers to discount the rumors of new personnel arriving in country. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Chris Simmons, a retired Cuba counter-intelligence expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that he didn't believe it made sense for Cuba to send in even more people after the anti-government protests erupted.
But there’s more than just a thriving market for skilled Cubans at stake in Venezuela. Decades of economic mismanagement have left Cuba with a weak economy. During the Cold War, the country received a substantial amount of economic aid from the Soviet Union. The USSR was happy to fund Cuba because it was 90 miles away from the US mainland, which routinely irritated — and occasionally terrified the crap out of — some sectors of the American public. When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, the aid stopped and the Cuban economy collapsed.
And so when Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1999 with the banner of the Bolivarian Revolution in his hand, fraternal socialism in his heart, and the profits of a huge and successful oil industry in his pocket, Cuba partied like it was 1999. In the increasingly close relationship, the Castros have been mentors of sorts to Chavez and Maduro, providing skilled professional assistance and guidance of all sorts.
In exchange, Venezuela has provided Cuba with money, oil, and other forms of support. "It’s abundantly clear that Cuba depends on Venezuela’s oil and financial assistance," Meacham said. "It seems Venezuela gives Cuba anywhere from $6 billion to $13 billion a year, and more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day." That monetary support has done a great deal to resuscitate the Cuban economy and get the country back on its feet. However, opposition figures like Antonio Ledezma, the outspoken mayor of Caracas, have been very critical of the Cuban-Venezuelan relationship. If Maduro’s government collapses, Venezuelan support for Cuba could very well vaporize.
The memory of the economic devastation after the Soviet Union’s economic support dried up is still fresh in many Cuban memories. Go back a little further in Cuban history and you'll get to 1975, when Cuba had more than 25,000 soldiers fighting in Africa in the Angolan Civil War. As a measure of the number of deployed troops versus total population, Cuba had four times as many troops in Angola as the US had in Vietnam. So Cuba has clearly demonstrated the wherewithal to deploy large numbers of soldiers to fight overseas for long periods of time.
This willingness to project its military power might come into play in Venezuela, should Cuba feel that it needs to protect its livelihood. And so while Cuba's current presence in Venezuela may be nothing more than gossip, the rumblings that Cuba is starting to call up troops and mobilize its army may turn out to be very real.