By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: 12/8/2006 | Last Updated: 12/8/2006 18:15 London Time
Hugo Chávez's sweeping victory in the Venezuelan presidential election this week could help to ensure political cover and economic support for the emerging leadership in Cuba as Fidel Castro fights for his life somewhere in Havana.
"As long as oil prices stay high, subsidised and bartered oil from Venezuela to Cuba will remain a huge source of support to the island," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America programme at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. "And precisely because Venezuela is more strategically important to the US than Cuba, if the US-Venezuela relationship stays at its current high-pitch, Raúl Castro will be able to consolidate the succession in the shadow of the larger regional tension."
Fidel Castro said in a 68-word message of congratulations to Mr Chávez: "I shall be brief, lest emotion betrays me. The victory was re-sounding, crushing and without parallel in the history of our America.''
Mr Castro, after missing a military parade and other events in honour of his 80th birthday last week, also failed to meet visitors such as Bolivia's President Evo Morales, or call Mr Chávez after his victory, sparking fresh speculation that his health has deteriorated.
Venezuela and Cuba have found a strong synergy, playing off each country's strength since Mr Chávez won his first election in 1998. Venezuela received an in-stant free healthcare system from Cuba that would have taken years and tens of billions of dollars to build, and education resources to help Mr Chávez keep his promise to teach every citizen to read and write.
Cuba received preferentially-financed oil in return and, after signing an agreement with Venezuela in late 2004, payment for health and other technical assistance that had been provided free, according to Havana.
Cuba's imports totalled $5.5bn in 2004 and non-tourism service income was about $1.5bn, compared with an estimated $10bn (€7.5bn, £5.1bn) of goods imported this year and non-tourism service revenues of more than $5bn. The steady oil supply and billions in revenues from the export of professional services are fuelling an economic boom after more than a decade of crisis.
Most important, Cuba's leaders are now able to point to a way out of the ideological and political debacle that followed European communism's collapse. The lights are back on, decrepit waterworks and transport are being gradually upgraded, new housing built, consumer goods replaced and there is more food on the table.
"Chávez's election was key," a European diplomat said. "Cuba will now be at least partially protected from what happens outside the country as the succession takes place."
Venezuela is using its vast oil wealth and Cuba its human capital to push their anti-US vision of a united, more socially-oriented Latin America at a time of growing restlessness among the region's poor.
US allies in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have lost at the polls to men who blame the US for the region's woes and favour a closer relationship with Venezuela, Cuba and their proposed model of local integration against US-centred trade pacts.
Venezuela provides the financing and Cuba the professionals to jump-start each new leader's social programmes.
Thousands of Cuban doctors and other professionals are already at work throughout Bolivia. However, there is some evidence that Cuba's human resources – about 30,000 of 70,000 doctors work abroad – can no longer meet the demand, creating strain on health services and doctor shortages even in Venezuela. Venezuela and Cuba have launched a crash programme to train 100,000 doctors from the region over five years to fill the vacuum.
Most other Caribbean and Latin American countries, though more moderate, are under increasing domestic pressure to meet basic social needs and also favour a regional integration that includes Cuba, as it increasingly provides them with relatively cheap services and educates their youth.
But here the Venezuela relationship is crucial. "God, imagine what would have happened with Fidel sick if he [Mr Chávez] had lost," said a secretary at a Havana day care centre. "We have fewer doctors but, so far, the benefits are worth it."
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