Chapter 16, The Benefactor:  Venezuela 

This is Cuba: An American Journalist Under Castro's Shadow

Chapter 16: The Benefactor

David Ariosto

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        I’m sorry, sir,” said a droopy-eyed waiter named Humberto as I sat in his vacant restaurant. “Ever since the violence started here, milk is hard to come by.” It was March 2014, and I had left for Venezuela, entering the once-affluent Andean country during the height of its protests. Milk was just the beginning of what Venezuela—and ultimately Cuba—would lack.

At its peak, Cuba depended on Venezuela for roughly 70 percent of its energy needs.1 But as the price of crude oil plummeted amid an American fracking boom, Venezuela—which relied on energy for 96 percent of its hard-currency revenue—felt the effects almost immediately. The heyday of $100 per barrel was gone. And as prices tumbled into the $40 range and Venezuela’s debt and inflation soared, shortages gripped the country, forcing Caracas to reduce fuel deliv- eries to Cuba by nearly one-third. Trade with the island plummeted as Venezuela teetered on the brink of collapse.

Riots broke out, food started to run out, and rolling blackouts paralyzed the economy and added a level of fear Venezuelans had not seen in decades, if ever. By day, thousands marched under the banner of antigovernment protests. By night, a volatile mix of anarchists and protesters hurled petrol bombs at government forces, who coun- tered with tear gas to disperse them. Caracas was a city under siege. Its air had an acrid taste, derived from the smolder of barricades and lingering wisps of spent tear gas. And yet the focus of protesters I spoke with kept tracing back to Havana.

 

“We don’t want to be another Cuba,” Maria Sanchez yelled in my direction as I interviewed her in the midst of yet another Caracas march. She was a student protester among thousands in the Venezu- elan capital who wielded banners and carried flags in protest of the government. These sorts of mass demonstrations had become al- most a daily occurrence. A month earlier, a student leader named Gaby Arellano had petitioned the island’s ambassador to Venezuela to refuse “to allow Cubans to interfere in our affairs any longer.”

“We don’t want them to go on controlling the media, directing military operations or indoctrinating our children,” she told the Guardian. Raúl Baduel, former defense minister under Chavez, told the British newspaper that Cuba’s involvement in his country was “not a myth.” Rather, he said, “It’s the reality.”

A Brookings report went further, estimating that the numbers of Cuban military and intelligence officials in Venezuela ranged from hundreds to thousands. Its soldiers had also exchanged the old U.S.- style military doctrine for a Cuban one, the report said, while Cuban officials maintained a “sala situacional” (situation room) for the Ven- ezuelan president. Maduro, the former bus driver turned president, was at least in part reliant on his Cuban counterparts.2 And yet his power—and therefore Cuba’s influence—had waned in Venezuela’s western reaches near the Colombia border, where student demon- strations first unfurled in the state of Táchira.

That’s where I assumed I needed to go.

Here, in the once-affluent college town of San Cristóbal, some five hundred miles southwest of the capital, lay the birthplace of Vene- zuela’s countrywide protests. And it was taking a heavy toll. Maduro could not fully dominate his country the way Raul, and Fidel before him, had dominated theirs. And so he seemed to be encouraging levels of violence for worse than any in modern-day Cuba.

 

Evening was approaching. I could see the weariness on the faces here, especially for those like Humberto Moncado, who was lament- ing his restaurant’s lack of milk.

I was his only customer.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, after I had asked him for a splash to go with the coffee. There was none. No milk at the restaurant. No milk at the grocery store. And as far as I could tell, there didn’t seem to be any milk in town.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I usually take it black anyway.”

He seemed to know I was lying. “Of course,” Humberto replied, adjusting his beige bow tie, which he had pulled a bit too tight. Despite the crisis, he was intent on keeping up appearances, deter- mined to keep his shop open, if only for a while. His shirt was crisp. His brass name tag looked polished. And yet for all the decorum, he couldn’t mask the bags and dark circles forming under his eyes.

“We close at three p.m.,” he said, wiping down my table and shuffling back to the front of the bar. “The fighting usually begins around five p.m.,” he added, nonchalantly, and so he wanted to safe- guard his staff by allowing them to get home before it started. “Would you like anything else?” he sighed.

“Do you have any chicken?” I asked, hungry from the journey. “No,” he replied. “I’m sorry.”
“A burger?”
“Not that either,” fatigue etched across his face. Perhaps it was

the knowledge that there were few of the ingredients he needed for all those dishes listed on his voluminous red-leather-bound menu.

Handing the menu to customers had become his habit, even though what he could offer had dwindled so much that the choices were now easy enough to remember.

“What do you have?” I asked.

 

“Right now it’s just coffee,” he replied. “Though there may be some arepas in back.”

His country was crumbling.
“Coffee will be fine,” I said.
Venezuela’s central bank would report that its economy was contracting by nearly 3 percent, while inflation soared by 64 percent.3 And that was just the beginning. By 2016, inflation topped 800 percent as the economy lost nearly a fifth of its size. I seemed to have arrived at the start of the slide.

This is the country propping up Cuba?

Venezuela was heading for collapse, though few realized just how bad it had gotten. The Cubans, however, must have known, and they would be preparing. The Castros had a knack for sniffing out disaster.

Just then, the high pitch of a woman’s voice broke my train of thought. “Are you open?” she shouted, clutching a bag and holding the hand of a little girl, no older than five. “Yes,” Humberto replied, extending his hand toward the scattering of empty tables. “Just sit where you like.”

“Thank you,” she said, staring off under hooded eyelids before settling in to a seat directly beside mine. The woman’s long, dark hair was frayed, looked greasy and unwashed, and she took her seat with a collapse of bones and body weight. Exhaustion was evident in her every movement: the extension of a hand, the turn of her head. All of it labored and slow. Still, her little girl smiled, toying with a bit of lace that hung down from the woman’s shirt.

“Look. Look,” she commanded, beckoning her mother’s attention.

The woman turned, nodded, and then gazed off. There was plenty of space to sit, and yet the pair had chosen a table right next to me.

“Hi,” I said, looking up from my mug. Our proximity required me to say something. “There’s not much on the menu.”

 

She turned to me, and her eyes widened, as if only now noticing that another person was beside her.

“That’s OK,” she exclaimed, regaining her composure. “As long as they have something.”

Her name was Norlyn Mota. She was in her midthirties and worked at a clothing store just outside San Cristóbal. Though she usually prepared a mix of arepas, rice, and beans for her daughter after work, today had been different. Norlyn had been delayed in reaching the market to replenish her shrinking supply of food after student protesters erected a fresh crop of barricades, or guarimbas, on the road in. Now, few markets were open, and she figured it best to just go buy a meal and head home rather than risk staying out too late. The little girl needed her dinner.

“All the stores are closed,” she told me, and we chatted there, less than a two-hour drive from the Colombian border. Mean- while, Humberto’s was about to join the ranks of those neighbor- ing shuttered stores. It was nearly 3 p.m. In two hours, like clockwork as Humberto had warned, the violence would begin. Norlyn ordered arepas. No matter what shortages gripped the country, one could usually find those white corn cakes somewhere. And yet that too was changing. Soon even corn would be a luxury. She ate quickly with her daughter, but not before turning to me once more when I asked how she felt about the recent events.

“It’s hard not to be a little afraid,” she said.

In the city’s hillside neighborhoods, where residents railed against President Nicolás Maduro, the air had a bitter taste, much like Caracas. Spent tear gas canisters littered streets and sidewalks. At least twenty-one people had been killed since the fighting broke out less than a month earlier, according to the government’s official tally, though student protesters claimed the real number was far higher. Hundreds had been wounded in the clashes, and scores ar- rested.

 

“The heart of this situation is an economic crisis,” a man named César Pérez Vivas, the former governor of the state of Táchira, told me over the phone. “But the government is responding with the mil- itary.” He was right. Each night armored cars would smash barricades as guardsmen launched volleys of tear gas against protesters in the city’s northern neighborhood where I had booked a room for the night...

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