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Venezuela Outsources Intelligence Activities to Cuba

By Meghan Clyne | NY Sun

Staff Reporter of the Sun January 26, 2005 | The chummy relationship between President Chavez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro seems to be growing even closer. Venezuela is outsourcing to Cuba two important government functions: publicizing the regime abroad, and secretly policing it at home.

On December 22,Venezuela enacted a law granting Cuban judicial and security forces extensive police powers within Venezuela, Miami's El Nuevo Herald reported Sunday. Under the new code, Cuban officials are allowed to investigate, seize, detain, and interrogate Venezuelans and Cubans living in the Bolivarian Republic. Suspects taken into Cuban custody in Venezuela could be extradited to the island and tried there without any assurance that they would be returned to Venezuela.

Allowing officials in Mr. Castro's dictatorship authority to conduct police operations in Venezuela, reported the Spanish-language Herald, has raised concern that Venezuela is no longer safe for the 30,000 Cubans living there, especially members of the anti-Castro opposition.

To Cuban-American Otto Reich, who has served at the State Department and as the American ambassador to Venezuela under President Reagan, the new law also bodes ill for Venezuelan sovereignty.

"Cubans are running Venezuelan intelligence services, indoctrinating and training the military - and now this," Mr. Reich told The New York Sun on Monday. "Whoever heard of one country allowing another country to have police powers? It's one thing to have extradition; it's another to have this," Mr. Reich added.

The executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, Frank Calzon, said: "There are accords and agreements between countries all the time, but this one bypasses what's left of Venezuela's judicial system." His group is trying to discover more about the new law's specifics and its implementation, but in the meantime, Mr. Calzon said, "this cooperation between Chavez and Castro is certainly a matter of concern."

"At the very least, this is an effort to intimidate Cubans abroad to remain silent and abstain from speaking out against the Cuban government," Mr. Calzon added. He said that the Castro regime has a long history of intimidating Cuban expatriates to quell dissent and silence truth-telling about oppression in the country. Mr. Calzon should know: In April 2004, a Cuban delegate to the United Nations in Geneva attacked Mr. Calzon, knocking him unconscious after Mr. Calzon had testified at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

To a Cuba and Latin America scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Stephen Johnson, Venezuela's outsourcing of political-policing powers to Cuba is further evidence of Mr. Chavez's tenuous connection to his people.

"The problem that Chavez faces is that he can't trust ordinary Venezuelans; he has only about a 30% approval rating ... and even within his own government, there are a lot of people he'd like to smoke out, either put behind bars or neutralize," Mr. Johnson said.

"Putting in these Cubans, who he can trust, does that," Mr. Johnson added.

Mr. Reich agreed that the new law is an expression of great confidence in Cuba on the part of Venezuela's president.

"The inner ring of the personal security for Chavez consists of Cuban secret service, instead of Venezuelans. Chavez actually trusts the Cuban government to protect his life more than he trusts his own people, which tells you something about the state of affairs in Venezuela," Mr. Reich said.

If the Cuban police presence eases Mr. Chavez's mind, it also eases the burden on his pocketbook. The security officials would be part of a much larger labor force dispatched by Mr. Castro to Venezuela throughout Mr. Chavez's presidency. Mr. Johnson estimates that some 27,000 Cuban doctors, teachers, sports trainers, intelligence and police officers, and other workers are currently in Venezuela, sent by Mr. Castro to help Mr. Chavez replicate in his own country many of the social and political structures of the Cuban regime.

This, said Mr. Johnson, is "essentially slave labor - it's a lot cheaper than getting Venezuelan loyalists to do it." He estimates that the workers receive about $15 to $20 a month from the Cuban government.

The one perk for Cubans sent to toil abroad was the increased ease of escape: Mr. Johnson said that in 2004, an estimated 500 to 1,000 of these laborers defected and left Venezuela. But because of the new law increasing Cuba's surveillance and policing authority in Venezuela, "of course that venue would be closed," said Mr. Calzon.

While the Castro-Chavez cooperation may be less than beneficial to Venezuelans and Cubans, it is a sweet deal for the latter's communist leader, sources familiar with the region said.

In exchange for the assistance Mr. Castro's regime has provided Mr. Chavez - ostensibly to help the Venezuelan president improve his country's educational and healthcare systems - Cuba receives roughly 80,000 barrels of oil a day at significantly reduced prices and on very generous credit terms, Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Calzon said that the oil deal is evidently profitable to Cuba beyond simply receiving a valuable commodity at below-market prices. In a setup very similar to one Castro enjoyed with the Soviet Union, Mr. Calzon said, a portion of the Venezuelan oil bypasses Cuba entirely and is resold immediately on the world market, with Mr. Castro pocketing the profits.

The financial rewards of allying with oil-rich Venezuela may explain, in part, why Cuba is helping the Bolivarian Re public with another important task: international publicity.

The Cuban mission to the United Nations has been sending out speeches and other remarks by Mr. Chavez on its e-mail list, and the Web site of its Ministry of Exterior Relations contains remarks by Mr. Chavez, and other materials highlighting Cuban-Venezuelan friendship, on its homepage.

By serving as a positive mouthpiece for Venezuela, said Mr. Johnson, Cuba is "probably trying to make it clear that there's a symbiosis between the two countries, which is very much more important to Castro than it is to Chavez at this point."

For the Cubans, securing Venezuelan good favor and largesse is essential, added Mr. Johnson, because the communist nation "is having a hard time right now - Cuba owes a lot of money to a lot of different countries, and it has had its credit suspended in Europe and Latin America and elsewhere."

According to Mr. Reich, it is Venezuela that stands to benefit from Cuba's expertise.

"The Cuban government has a lot more experience in propaganda," Mr. Reich said. "Chavez is relatively new at it; and the Cubans are experts - they've had 45 years at it, and the best training the Soviet Union was able to provide," the former ambassador said.

Mr. Johnson added that the Cuban mission's e-mail list has an audience far beyond the United Nations. It reaches "solidarity movements in other countries, particularly in the developing world ... and sends a signal that Venezuela is a supporter of Cuba's type of government and revolutionary dream," he said.

To terrorist movements like FARC and ELN in Colombia, and Shining Path in Peru, Cubans are saying, "If you have a friend in us, you have a friend in Venezuela," Mr. Johnson added.

Repeated calls placed to the Venezuelan Embassy, the Venezuelan Information Office, and the Cuban mission to the United Nations were not returned.

While the association with Cuba may improve Venezuela's image among Latin American revolutionaries and terrorists, it does little to curry favor with Americans, whose opinions about Venezuela has worked doggedly to reshape and improve.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department, Gonzalo Gallegos, said that the department has "consistently called attention to the fact that we do not believe that it is a good thing that a democratically elected leader would want to have such close ties to the only nondemocratic leader in the region."

But if the close ties may harm Venezuela's efforts to improve its image in America, Mr. Castro sees the relationship as improving his image in the rest of Latin America, said Mr. Johnson. "I believe Castro is looking at his own mortality, and seeing Chavez as someone who will carry the torch for him, and his kind of government, in Latin America," the scholar said. "And he sees his revolutionary dream succeeding in Venezuela and spreading off from there, even though chances are it may fade and be reversed in Cuba over the coming years."

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