Fidel the father

Fidel and Hugo: The Bond That Changed Today's Latin America

Both revolutionary leaders, revered by any and loathed by others, built a friendship between their two countries and set off a shift in regional politics that has had lasting impact.

On December 14, 1994, a young, former Venezuelan soldier arrived for the first time in Havana having recently been granted clemency in his country for leading a failed coup attempt. The Cuban stop was the last in a tour of Latin America, where the former military man was looking to drum up international support for the burgeoning ‘Bolivarian’ movement he was now leading.

As Hugo Chavez stepped off the commercial flight he had boarded, he was amazed to find Cuban president, Fidel Castro waiting for him outside the aircraft. This would be the first of many encounters between the two revolutionaries. According to Cuban historian, Eusebio Leal, Fidel Castro saw Chavez’s potential to become a political, international and revolutionary leader at the highest levels. Chavez meanwhile, saw in Fidel – a proven tactician and skilled statesman – someone who could provide him with political mentorship.

"Fidel to me is a father, a comrade, a master of perfect strategy," Chavez said in a 2005 interview with the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma.

Following his 1998 victory in the Presidential elections, Chavez set off to fulfill a still moderate local program to change the constitution through a constituent assembly, while also touting the need to spread Venezuela’s oil wealth to the country’s poor majorities.

Fidel Castro, who was among the attendees at Chavez’s inauguration ceremony in Caracas in 1999, admitted that he did not expect the Venezuelan to ascend so quickly.

“I was privileged to attend the inauguration of the new president of Venezuela... I met him five years ago and we talked about future, but I never thought it was going to be so fast,” Fidel told media following the ceremony. With Chavez in the Miraflores Presidential office, Venezuela-Cuba relations significantly improved, beginning with ceremonial events and even increased trade.

However as Chavez’s attempts to create significant changes in Venezuela drew increased push back from the country’s dominant classes and their international allies, the Venezuelan leader found himself travelling to meet with his Cuban counterpart for advice, support and partnerships in order to overcome these obstacles.

The first – and some would argue most important – supports provided by Cuba to Venezuela can be in the areas of health and economy. As Chavez wanted to nationalize the country’s vast oil reserves to generate revenue for social programs, the Cuban expertise in the implementation of nationalization was important. More recently, Bolivian president Evo Morales also spoke about the technical support provided by Cuban’s in his own country’s oil and gas nationalizations, given the little support he was able to find from bureaucrats in Bolivia.

Once Venezuela had completed the contentious task of nationalizing oil, Chavez set out to change the country’s health system, which had suffered a series of brutal privatizations. The Venezuelan leader called upon doctors to participate in his initiative to make health services available to poor people in remote and often dangerous urban areas, but only a handful of doctors were willing.

With an abundance of doctors and health professionals, Cuba was able to fill that void in a unique arrangement that benefitted both countries. Here was the genesis the Barrio Adentro program, which created thousands of clinics in poor neighborhoods and villages around the country, staffed by Cuban specialists. The program, which has since expanded to include a wide range of health services, significantly improved health indicators in Venezuela and was lauded by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

The following year in 2004, Chavez and Fidel expanded their health partnership with Mission Milagro, program that to date has restored vision for some 3,470,206 visually impaired patients around the world. Beyond trade and social reforms, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro shared a common vision for the Americas based on the ideas of their respective national heroes – the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar and Cuban poet and independence leader, Jose Marti.

In the new millennium, both leaders were advocating for the integration of Latin America and the Caribbean, to challenge foreign influence in the region – especially from the United States. Chavez was the lone voice posing criticisms and doubts about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a U.S. proposal agreement to eliminate or reduce the trade barriers among all countries in the Americas, during the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City. Chavez also chastised the exclusion of Cuba for the summit.

In the new millennium, both leaders were advocating for the integration of Latin America and the Caribbean, to challenge foreign influence in the region – especially from the United States. Chavez was the lone voice posing criticisms and doubts about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a U.S. proposal agreement to eliminate or reduce the trade barriers among all countries in the Americas, during the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City. Chavez also chastised the exclusion of Cuba for the summit.

Of course, Fidel’s Cuba had been at the forefront of convening a hemispheric movement against the free market proposal, and invariably the two leaders spoke about the dangers of the agreement and the necessity to stop it. Not but four years later, with anti-neoliberal governments in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay also rejecting the FTAA, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro declared the “burial” of the the agreement at a rally in Mar de Plata.

By the time of the 4th Summit of the Americas meeting in Argentina, both revolutionary leaders had already launched an alternative vision and model for regional integration.

On December 14, 2004, to mark 10 years since the historic, first encounter between the two leaders, the Cuba-Venezuela Agreement, which was aimed at the exchange of medical and educational resources and petroleum between both nations, was signed. That same year the agreement was named as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

Since its launch with only the two founding member, a number of other Latin American and Caribbean nations joined the project, including Bolivia under Evo Morales joined in 2006, Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega in 2007, and Ecuador under Rafael Correa in 2009. Honduras joined in 2008, but withdrew a year later after the coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya. More recently, the Caribbean nations Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia have joined joined.

The consolidation of ALBA can be seen as perhaps the crowning achievement of the cooperation and friendship between the two countries and the two leaders. ALBA, which bases trade on the principles of mutual aid and cooperation rather than on markets, has created other similarly-minded initiatives including Petrocaribe which provides below market oil to Caribbean nations, and even teleSUR.

Chavez remarked that the cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela is an example of what socialism can and should do. Indeed, it is more than likely that Fidel also played a role in Chavez’s evolving ideology, starting from a loose, progressive nationalist under the banner of ‘Bolivarianism’ to a leader calling for the creation of socialism for the 21st Century. When Hugo Chavez passed in 2013, Fidel Castro described him as the best friend that the Cuban people have had in their history. As a moving song accompanied a video montage of the numerous visits and initiatives started by and benefitting both countries, one could not help but think that the visibly distraught former Cuban President was that he had also lost his best friend.