Much has been said about the behavior of Venezuela’s Bolivarian regime, its evolving character, its dramatic economic mismanagement, and the impact it has projected throughout the American hemisphere, including its bilateral ties to Cuba.
first glance, it would seem that – based on classical international relations
scholarship referents when it comes to assessing national power such as
population, territory, natural resources, and sheer economic size – Venezuela
is the senior partner. Yet a crucial factor is missing to examine how the
balance of power truly works in the dynamic framework of said bilateral
the evident ideological, political, and diplomatic affinities between the
rulers of both countries, the crucial factor that has been overlooked even by
most experts is the strong presence and operational intensity of Cuban
intelligence agencies in Venezuela. A different picture – one that challenges
conventional wisdom – might emerge when one considers this angle.
topic is important considering its deep geopolitical implications. It also
raises pertinent questions: What if Venezuela is not necessarily the senior
partner after all? The fact that it has not been addressed is perhaps a result
of the intrinsically covert nature of intelligence activities. Moreover, both
regimes are not precisely known for their compliance with basic transparency
standards. In practice, that means relevant and reliable information about it
is notoriously scarce. Nevertheless, the analysis of what open sources provide
is useful to elaborate a more or less accurate – yet broad – situational
of Cuban Intelligence Services
to conventional wisdom, effective foreign intelligence capabilities are usually
associated with great powers. The American CIA, the British MI6, the Israeli
Mossad, the Russian SVR and the like often come to mind whenever the term is
mentioned. Of course, such perception is hardly unjustified. In contrast, Cuba
is certainly far from being a great power, yet the reach of its intelligence
services must not be underestimated.
Cuban Intelligence Directorate – known as G2 – was initially trained by the
Soviet KGB and the Stasi, the East German Ministry of State Security, the
strongest intelligence agencies of the Socialist bloc during the Cold War.
Moreover, the resilience that has played a key role in the survival of the
Cuban communist regime for six decades can be at least partially attributed to
its intelligence services’ abilities to monitor internal dissent, consolidate
political rule, and keep at bay external rivals. It is even said that Fidel
Castro himself was the target of hundreds of unsuccessful assassination
known that the Cuban intelligence community recruits promising college
students, especially from social science programs. Its training and methods are
based on the development of professionalism rather than improvisation, unlike
other Latin American intelligence agencies. Furthermore, a heavy ideological
ingredient promotes a strong morale.
aspect worth emphasizing is that Cuban intelligence has not just assumed a
defensive position. Actually, it has been remarkably active abroad for decades.
For instance, it supported several Marxist insurgencies in Central and South
America during the Cold War. It has also managed to infiltrate US national
security agencies and Cuban American political groups hostile to Havana’s
not least, Cuban intelligence supported the military involvement of the
country’s armed forces in extra-regional operational theatres such as Angola,
Vietnam, and even the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War.
short, despite Cuba’s structural limitations – including its precarious economy
– the country’s intelligence services represent a big asset in terms of power
projection. In effect, they need to be understood as a substantial force
of Cuban Interests in Venezuela
interest of Cuba in Venezuela is not new. Aside from cultural common
denominators and geographic proximity, Venezuela’s energy resources are
attractive from Havana’s perspective. Additionally, it is important to note
that Venezuela was precisely the first country that Fidel Castro visited after
having overthrown Fulgencio Batista. Nevertheless, a Cuban request for economic
assistance was rejected by Caracas.
other unconventional measures were implemented. In fact, Cuban military and
intelligence personnel backed two forcible attempts to provoke regime change in
Caracas through the instigation of an armed popular uprising. Both were
ultimately neutralized by Venezuelan armed forces. These incidents surely must
have shaped the perception of Venezuelan generals, admirals, and senior
intelligence cadres: the Cuban government was acting as a direct threat to
Venezuela’s national security.
later, changing circumstances in global geopolitics rekindled Cuban strategic
interests in Venezuela. In other words, the collapse of the Soviet Union left
Cuba without reliable geopolitical patronage and also without generous economic
pressing concern for Havana was that its energy security – which until then had
been covered by Moscow under favourable conditions – was now at stake. A
“special period” of severe budgetary restrictions had to be applied.
Nevertheless, prolonged economic distress could endanger the political survival
of the Castro regime. Hence, a solution needed to be found and preferably
before discontent could fuel unrest or worse.
surprise coup attempt launched by Venezuelan Colonel Hugo Chavez back in 1992
was a major political earthquake, even though it did not produce its intended
outcome. In his quest to find political support for his so called Bolivarian
movement, Chavez visited Havana and was euphorically received by Fidel Castro
himself, even though he had voiced support for the then sitting Venezuelan
President Carlos Andrés Pérez, the leader Chavez intended to remove from power.
Chavez was likely only feeding his charismatic ascent to political stardom, the
Cuban ruler – guided by foresight – must have perceived a valuable strategic
opportunity. Hence, the Cuban state started investing in the career of an
ideological friend that one day could reach an important position. In contrast,
Chavez apparently started viewing Castro as some sort of mentor. There might
have been a genuine mutual sympathy between them but geopolitics is ultimately
ruled by impersonal forces. That was certainly clear in Havana but it is
debatable if the same vision prevailed in Caracas.
once Chavez became president several years later, bilateral ties to Cuba were
significantly strengthened. The Bolivarian regime started providing economic
support for Havana, including the supply of oil under very privileged
conditions, even though the global price of oil was sharply rising back then.
Thus, Chavez can be regarded as the economic saviour of the Cuban revolutionary
regime. Whether he was aware of that or whether he was instead playing that
role rather unwittingly is hard to determine but the dictates of political
realism indicate it is a possibility that cannot be dismissed.
exchange for the generous Venezuelan backing, Cuba began sending doctors, sport
trainers, technicians, and engineers to Venezuela. Needless to say, the arrival
of Cuban personnel to Venezuela provided an ideal cover in which to place
Point and Increasing Presence
the increasingly radical and intransigent position assumed by the Bolivarian
government alienated several sectors of Venezuelan society, including the
middle classes, the local business community, and – more importantly – some
factions of the country’s top military echelons and the intelligence apparatus,
who were deeply distrustful of Cuban influence because of the aforementioned
historical precedents. Maybe such suspicions were not unsubstantiated after
motivated an attempt to remove Chavez from power. The coup ultimately failed
but, during critical hours, opposition forces surrounded the Cuban embassy and
the leaders that briefly assumed power decided to interrupt the flow of
Venezuelan oil to Cuba. What matters is that direct Cuban influence – either
overt or clandestine – was already an acknowledged political reality by all
Bolivarian government was promptly restored thanks to a superior coordination
in terms of mobilization and, motivated by a revanchist agenda, embraced even
more uncompromising positions. In this context of growing polarization, a major
turning point took place: The Cuban presence in Venezuela’s strategic circles
military personnel started arriving at Venezuelan bases. A new military
doctrine – similar to that of Havana – was adopted. Ideological and military
training was now imparted by Cuban instructors. Furthermore, with the
assistance of Cuban agents, the Venezuelan intelligence community -– including
both its civilian and military branches – was remodeled and purged of officials
deemed ‘counterrevolutionary.’ It has even been claimed that Cuban specialists
were active in the Venezuelan presidential situation room, involved in tasks
related to protecting the regime and monitoring relevant political
be argued that, in his paranoia, Chavez considered that he had no choice but to
turn to his Cuban allies now that he no longer trusted many Venezuelan
governmental sectors. In contrast, the Cubans harnessed this situation as an opportunity
to augment their degree of strategic influence in the most critical sectors and
nerve centers of the Venezuelan state.
afterwards, there were Cuban “advisers” in several Venezuelan embassies and
ministries. The ruling Bolivarian elite received Cuban bodyguards and doctors.
In contrast, the Venezuelan military presence in Cuba was negligible since all
it entailed was an attaché office. In other words, the strategic relation – in
matters of security, intelligence and military affairs – had become profoundly
asymmetric, to say the least.
analysts might describe this situation as some form of ‘occupation’,
considering that Cuban presence in Venezuela had reached decisive proportions,
even though Havana had not even fired a single shot. The Cubans were not just
influential; they were now prominently involved in the decision-making process
at the highest levels. As a result of a political miscalculation by Chavez and
his closest collaborators, Venezuelan national sovereignty may have been
compromised to a significant degree.
revealing facts include the Cuban role in the conformation of the paramilitary
cells called ‘Bolivarian circles,’ groups of armed civilian militias
responsible for protecting the Chavez regime and intimidating his opponents as
well as in the implementation of draconian measures of social control, such as
the connection between the issuance of official IDs and the introduction of
pervasive digital surveillance systems.
foreign policy, Caracas started replicating Havana’s geopolitical alignments.
Venezuela became a close ally of Eurasian powers hostile to US interests –
mainly Russia, China, and Iran – and even non-state actors like the FARC
Marxist guerrillas and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Moreover, Venezuela
started purchasing Russian weapons and military hardware. Tellingly, even the
prospect of a hypothetical confederation to formally unite Cuba and Venezuela
was also discussed, the underlying assumption of which would be the perception
that the national interests of both countries were to be seen as identical
regardless of whether that was politically and strategically valid.
Hugo Chavez was diagnosed with cancer, he was treated by Cuban doctors in
Havana. In fact, whereas Venezuelans – including members of the Bolivarian
ruling elite – were kept in the dark, his condition was hermetically handled as
a Cuban state secret. Understandably, the Cubans were worried that a power
struggle over succession in Caracas might be detrimental to Havana’s national
it is impossible to ascertain the extent of the role played by the Cubans in
the selection of Nicolas Maduro. His Castroist ideological formation, his lack
of a charismatic leadership comparable to that of his predecessor, and his
background as a militant rather than as a career politician – let alone a
statesman – raise reasonable doubts, especially considering Cuban intelligence
might have regarded him as somebody that could be easily manipulated.
the steep decline of global oil prices and the subsequent collapse of the
Venezuelan economy, due to both erratic policies – likely motivated by ideological
reasons rather than pragmatic decisions – and to a rampant kleptocracy, started
fueling increasing socio-political tensions. As a result, the Venezuelan
intelligence apparatus began using heavy-handed tactics to retain control.
Furthermore, there were also external difficulties, since the Bolivarian
continental axis was weakened due to successive political defeats.
demise of Fidel Castro in 2016 and the uncertain fate of Venezuela, Cuba
proceeded to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States under Barack
Obama’s administration. It was a desperate move, because it revealed that the
Cubans at some point thought that Venezuela could escape Havana’s geopolitical
gravitational pull. Therefore, their geopolitical bets had to be hedged. It
would have been utterly unwise not to.
the Maduro regime has proved to be highly resilient, even though it has faced
both international isolation and growing political challenges at home. Of
course, the support of the Venezuelan armed forces and the instrumental use of
the country’s intelligence apparatus as a repressive tool have been
the role of Cuban intelligence services cannot be neglected. If anything, their
presence is more conspicuous than ever before. Maduro himself is completely
surrounded by Cuban advisers, agents and staffers. Perhaps not surprisingly,
Venezuela still provides cheap oil to Cuba – approximately 100 thousand daily
barrels – even though its domestic economic situation is dire to say the least,
based on indicators like GDP contraction, hyperinflation and widespread
unavailability of food.
according to eyewitness accounts, in a probable attempt to take advantage of
his superstitious streak, his immediate entourage even includes Cuban witch
doctors who practice Santería, a syncretic Afro-Cuban esoteric religion. As any
seasoned intelligence will discern, perhaps the substantial role those priests
play is more worldly than spiritual. It would hardly be the first time that
religion is used as a conduit to undertake espionage.
difficult to forecast how the bilateral relation will behave in a foreseeable
future. However, several scenarios need to be envisaged, along with their
implications for the field of intelligence. Hence, the following possibilities
need to be taken into account:
of the status quo: In the case, Maduro – or someone like him – stays in power,
Cuban influence would remain rock-solid. Also, Caracas could receive stronger
support from great powers like Russia and China, who happen to be geopolitical
allies of Havana. This is of course the best-case scenario for Cuban
political transition: A deal between Maduro and his opponents as the only way
to overcome the Venezuelan crisis should not be discarded. In this case, Maduro
would peacefully agree to go into exile – probably to Havana – in exchange for
immunity from legal prosecution and the unmolested conservation of his personal
wealth. Since the outcome is not entirely clear, this would open Pandora’s box
for Cuban intelligence. Their influence would be compromised if the next
Venezuelan government does not share the Bolivarian agenda. In this case, Cuban
intelligence operatives would fiercely fight to preserve the degree of
influence they have achieved. In other words, they would become an actor in the
ensuing power struggle and it would be naïve not to expect the intervention of
other intelligence agencies.
disruption: The abrupt end of the Maduro regime could materialize if a
successful coup takes place, a political assassination is carried, out or if a
bloody civil war erupts. This would certainly be a big game changer and the
consequences for Cuban intelligence would be more than challenging. In case a
purge is conducted, its agents might find themselves evicted but, if a conflict
breaks out, the Cubans will also be engulfed and the G2 will have no choice but
to get involved. If their influential position is lost, it would be a severe
setback for Havana’s geopolitical agenda. It would need to seek another
benefactor if its Venezuelan satellite is gone, preferably before a potential
domino effect can reach Cuba itself.
case reveals how important effective intelligence capabilities are as a
strategic vector for power projection at the service of national interests.
Through its intelligence apparatus, Cuba has achieved a disproportionate amount
of multidimensional influence on Venezuela. It is arguably one of Cuba’s
biggest geostrategic accomplishments.
reality also emphasizes that competent foreign intelligence services cannot be
exclusively developed by the greatest powers in the international system. In
fact, a relatively small state like Cuba can influence countries whose critical
mass is considerably superior. In other words, intelligence services represent
a force multiplier than can enhance a country’s geopolitical standing and make
it a relevant stakeholder in complex dynamics. Their usage can decisively alter
the balance of power.
views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not
necessarily reflect Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the
author is associated.
article was originally published on June 18, 2019.