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How has Maduro survived? With lots of help from cuban operatives

Marco Bello /Reuters

The President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel (i.) And his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas.

- Nearly 10,000 Cubans are in sensitive roles, U.S. believes

- Some arrested say Cubans were supervising their interrogations

By Ethan Bronner, Alex Vasquez, and David Wainer / Bloomberg

Petroleumworld 04 02 2019

The men who ripped Carlos Guillen's toenails out and tightened a plastic bag over his face at counterintelligence headquarters in Caracas were Venezuelan. But the officers overseeing his torture were Cuban.

What immediately gave them away was how they spoke Spanish, said Guillen, a former lieutenant in the Venezuelan military who was accused of treason and, after being placed under house arrest and escaping, fled to Colombia.

Accents were a tip-off, too, for Maria Martinez Guzman. She was on the Univision team that scored an interview in February with embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and she said she was amazed by what she witnessed: Cubans in suits and earpieces telling Maduro aides, wearing jeans, what to do. The president was so angered by the journalists' questions that he ordered the crew briefly detained and then thrown out of the country.

“It was very clear who was guarding Maduro, who was responsible for him and who was just taking orders,” Guzman, a Cuban-American television producer from Miami, said recently. She said the slang the suited-up men in the room used made it clear they were from the island.

As the international community tries to comprehend how Maduro has, despite a collapsing economy and punishing U.S. sanctions, held onto power over these past couple months, the role played by Russia and China, key financial backers of his authoritarian regime, gets most of the attention.

But Cuba and its cadre of operatives on the ground are crucial too, providing intelligence support that's helped frustrate the bid by Juan Guaido -- the opposition lawmaker recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's rightful leader -- to topple Maduro and install a transitional government.

‘Nervous System'

“We know that Maduro's own bodyguards are Cuban. We know there is a very substantial Cuban presence in the two main intelligence agencies,” said Elliott Abrams, the U.S. State Department's special envoy for Venezuela, in an interview. “The Cubans constitute a kind of nervous system for this regime. It wouldn't be there if it weren't for them.”

In a tweet 10 days ago, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez described as lies and propaganda assertions that Cubans train and intimidate Venezuelan officials. Venezuelan government spokesmen didn't respond to requests for comment.

The tight relationship between the two countries began after Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, and he and Fidel Castro became close, aligned in their socialist visions. Over the following decade, tens of thousands of Cubans were sent to Venezuela to establish medical and community centers and develop athletic programs, as well as offer tools of political repression. Venezuela paid in oil.

Caracas continues to provide the island with at least 50,000 barrels daily, Abrams said. After Chavez died and Maduro took over in 2013, the plunge in oil prices, along with rampant mismanagement and corruption, made that provision a bigger burden. Now, Venezuela's unraveling means Cuba, once a Soviet-sponsored showcase of third-world defiance, must find other ways out of poverty.

Transactional Relationship

Still, there's little debate that Cuba's agents still hold substantial sway in Venezuela, a potential powerhouse with the world's biggest oil reserves. As Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, put it in an interview, “Cuba has always punched above its weight in the intelligence field.”

Scholars offer a more nuanced view, but only somewhat more. Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution said it's an exaggeration that Cubans call all the shots in Caracas. But they've been instrumental in reinventing the way Venezuela is run, he said. “They're political agents of that mindset of one-party control.”

Whereas under Chavez the Cuba relationship flourished on many levels, today it's transactional, as Cuban agents mostly just hold key security and intelligence slots, said Brian Fonseca of Florida International University , who has written a study of Cubans in Venezuela for Washington's Wilson Center.

But with that, “Cuba has been able to firewall the regime and help assure its survival.”

Venezuelans say that, for years, if you needed documentation for property or motor vehicles or an ID card, you might find yourself facing a Cuban at the government office. As budgets have dried up, many of those Cubans have left, but their systems remain in place. The U.S. government estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 Cubans hold key slots in Venezuela.

At President's Request

Anthony Daquin, who worked for the Interior Ministry when it was modernizing its identification system, said that it is “technically and operationally controlled by Cubans from the University of Information Sciences of Cuba .” A consultant who now lives in the U.S., Daquin said there are some 300 Cubans running the Administrative Service of Identification, Migration and Foreigners Saime and that there is “a copy of the file of each Venezuelan ID” is at the university in Havana.

Zair Mundaray, a senior Venezuelan state prosecutor who escaped in mid-2017, said in an interview in Bogota that when he was part of a six-member council advising Maduro on citizen security, he noticed two Cubans who sat on the side taking notes during meetings. Mundaray said he objected to the minister in charge, saying the meetings were secret, and was told the men were there at the president's request.

Many of the most important Cuban operatives in Venezuela are housed in well-guarded buildings, especially in Fuerte Tiuna, the main military base in Caracas near Maduro's home, according to Guillen and other Venezuelans familiar with the base.

Blending In

Dissident former officers like Guillen -- who recounted his 2017 torture session in a recent interview in Colombia -- say that Cuban guards watch over the houses of Maduro and his defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez.

One question that hangs over the arrangement is why, given Venezuela's decline into lawlessness and hunger, ordinary Venezuelans don't now turn on the Cubans. They've been targets in the past, such as in 2002, during a coup that briefly removed Chavez from power, when a group of opposition supporters surrounded the Cuban embassy in Caracas to protest.

Today, Rubio said, there are anti-Cuban factions within the Maduro regime and tensions over the Cuban role. Abrams, the special envoy, said he believes fear is keeping the Cubans safe.

In a 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable from Caracas, published by WikiLeaks, a political officer discusses the low profile many Cubans kept and Chavez's effort to sell the idea of welcoming Cubans, including on his weekly TV show. There have been consistent reports of Cubans being taught to blend in, taking on Venezuelan accents and mannerisms.

Fonseca, the Florida scholar, said the relationship is ebbing, noting that trade with Venezuela accounted for just 5 percent of Cuban commerce in 2017, down from 17 percent in 2012. And while many Cuban doctors and social workers reported back to the Havana regime, “it's clear that not every Cuban is a spy. For one thing, the slush fund of an earlier era is no longer there.” For now, though, their presence in the centers of power still appears crucial.


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Story by Ethan Bronner, Alex Vasquez, and David Wainer from Bloomberg. 04 01 2019



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