Innocence died with the passing of Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) on November 24. Two days later actor Fritz Weaver (no relation to The Cat or Sigourney, so I’m told) passed away. Sandwiched in between Fidel Castro, the originator of the fashion trend known as Banana Republic Chic, checked into Motel Deep 6 for the rest of eternity. With guns at their temples, they wept in Havana. In Miami, they danced the night away in celebration. At long last, the demise of the brutal dictator served as a reminder that the first step toward a democratic Cuba could only begin with this event.
Except for the promise of a renewed economic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba brought on by President Obama’s misguided notion that any dollars Americans might spend in Cuba will improve the plight of a repressed society, the Cuban economy was evaporating faster than a Saharan ice cube. I think Obama proposed it just to cheer up the ailing despot. Since the U.S.S.R. broke up in the 90s, that’s the communist bloc – not the metal band Ultra Sonic Simian Robots, Cuba has been basically marginalized by the rest of the world as a curiosity, something to be gawked at from a distance.
During the cold war, Cuba sided with the Soviets and Venezuela with the U.S. But when Hugo Chavez was elected at the end of the last century, nearly a decade after the Berlin wall fell, everything changed. Chavez and Castro started a bromance that lasted to their final days. They bonded over their selflessness and how their struggle to set their people free made them spiritual brothers in arms. No sacrifice was too large for the country. But in reality what bound the two together was oil.
Chavez’s populist campaign promised his people all the trappings of a modern, progressive country under a Bolivarian Socialist system – code for Communism-lite. Chavez marveled at the advancements Cuba made in public health, education, science, technology and cultural pursuits while under the Soviet‘s shadow and wanted the same for Venezuela. The two men struck a bargain.
The Convenio Integral de Cooperación promised that Venezuela would send 53,000 barrels of heavily discounted oil per day to Cuba and in return receive the doctors, teachers and other skilled technical trades Chavez needed so desperately in the rural regions that got him elected. Fifty thousand people were relocated to Venezuela to keep up Castro’s end of the agreement.
The deal worked like a charm for years. Both countries upped the ante with Venezuela doubling its crude shipments to Cuba and Cuba helping Venezuela transition from a NATO style military to one designed more along Russian lines. As Cuba was looking more like a western capitalist importing more than 100,000 barrels of crude each day, Venezuela took on the vestiges of bygone tyrannical republics. It was clear Castro and Chavez were trading more than goods and services.
Now that the two leaders are gone Convenio Integral de Cooperación is looking about as healthy as their respective economies. Shipments of oil to Cuba have dried up. Lower oil prices have forced PDVSA to abandon many projects and forced them to buy oil on the open market in order to meet the obligations to Cuba for the remaining few months of their deal. Early next year, Cuba will have to fend for itself to keep its refinery open. Could this be why Obama approved lifting the crude export ban?
So, thousands of doctors, nurses, and teachers are returning home to Cuba from Venezuela, but they won’t find oil refinery work in Cienfuegos, Cuba. The refinery, modified and expanded with the help of Chavez, brought livelihoods back to an old sugar town Castro had pulled the plug on years ago. Now, Cienfuegos is once again on life support.
Chavez successor, President Nicolas Maduro, and Castro’s brother Raul are both steadfast in their resolution to carry the same torch the fallen brothers lit, but economic realities have a way of throwing cold water on the best intentions. Venezuela’s economy is in freefall staring quadruple-digit inflation in the face. Maduro accuses the U.S. of creating a monetary crisis by sneaking piles of 100-bolivar notes out of the country and secretly stashing them in Eastern European warehouses – thus creating a cash shortage driving inflation. I suppose that’s a better story than admitting to basing your entire budget on the price of oil with no reserves for when prices plummets.
Meanwhile, Cuba stays Cuba. They continue blaming the U.S for its hardships. People say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem – being honest with yourself about who you really are and atoning to the people you’ve hurt in the process. President Obama’s cracked the freezer door to begin the thawing process, but I think Raul Castro is hoping that’s where the U.S. keeps the Vodka.