Tags: Cuba | Chavez | military | expansion

Cuba's Expanding Military Role in Venezuela Raises Concerns

Tuesday, 15 Jun 2010 05:30 AM


CARACAS, Venezuela — The ties between President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Communist leaders are plain enough: Cuba has thousands of doctors here, not to mention a smaller number of advisers who help on a breadth of issues, like agricultural engineering and even training Olympic athletes.

But the quiet expansion of Cuba’s military role here has raised a particular concern among critics of Mr. Chávez, who maintain that the military is being retooled — with Cuba’s help — into an institution that can be used to quell any domestic challenge to the president.

In a rare public critique, a former aide to Mr. Chávez has lambasted the role of Cuban advisers in delicate areas that he says include military intelligence, weapons training, strategic planning and the logistics of Mr. Chávez himself, who often travels on a Cuban plane.

“We are at the mercy of meddling in areas of national security by a Cuban regime, which wants Chávez to remain in power because Chávez gives them oil,” the former aide, Antonio Rivero, a brigadier general who retired this year, said in an interview.

“The Cuban advisers are there to exert pressure,” he added, “and they often claim to speak on the president’s behalf as if they were his emissaries.”

Mr. Chávez has made no bones about the presence of Cuban military advisers, who he says are “modestly” helping in some areas. But he has publicly offered no details on how many there are or where they are working.

Carlos A. Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela who researches military ties with Cuba, estimates that there are 500 Cuban military advisers in the country, including an elite group of about 20 officers operating from Fuerte Tiuna, the country’s main garrison.

A spokesman at Cuba’s embassy here did not respond to requests for comment.

The critique by General Rivero, who worked as an aide to Mr. Chávez early in his presidency and later as the head of the emergency management agency, comes after years in which Cuba has served as a linchpin of support for Mr. Chávez.

The Cuban doctors have provided free medical care to poor Venezuelans; in exchange for such support, Cuba gets oil imports of about 100,000 barrels a day from Venezuela, helping it recover from an economic collapse after the end of Soviet-era energy subsidies in the 1990s. But the military exchanges have become a delicate issue here.

“Cuba doesn’t sell weapons systems, setting it apart from the military cooperation agreements Venezuela has with Russia or China,” said Rocío San Miguel, a legal scholar here who specializes in military affairs. “What Cuba sells is intelligence and strategic planning, based on 50 years of experience in keeping a repressive regime in power.”

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