Cubans in Venezuela sow seeds of controversy

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Thu Jul 17 21:45:26 MDT 2003

(Important to read through to the end as
the close and collaborative relationship
between Cuba and Venezuela drives the
Venezuelan right, and the anti-Cuban
elements everywhere to distraction, but
quite a bit of good information here.

(More on this topic in a Granma story
about the literacy campaign yesterday:

from the July 17, 2003 edition -

Cubans in Venezuela sow seeds of controversy
Cuban doctors, teachers, and farmers are helping the poor,
but some decry the 'Cubanization' of Venezuela
By Mike Ceaser
Special to The Christian Science Monitor

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Unemployed bus driver Rafael Lira
landed an unlikely job amid the high-rises of downtown
He's now a farmer.

Mr. Lira and eight others tend an acre plot wedged between
Hilton Hotel and a pair of busy avenues, where lettuce,
beets, and other crops thrive. Lira says he has become
self-sufficient from his steady share of vegetable sales.

"[This farm plot] shows that this is viable," he says. "That
one can live from this and obtain independence."

Urban farming's success here is rooted in an unlikely
visiting agronomists from Cuba. But in a Venezuela extremely
polarized over the rule of leftist President Hugo Chávez,
and hundreds of other Cubans working throughout Venezuelan
society are sowing the seeds of controversy.

For the government of Mr. Chávez, the Cubans provide
aid in areas where Cuba's socialist revolution has made
internationally recognized strides, such as health and

But for Chávez's opponents, who have long charged that his
is to transform Venezuela into a communist dictatorship, the
Cuban workers are really preparing the ground for the
"Cubanization" of Venezuela. Although the first Cubans came
here shortly after Chávez took office in 1999, the
has heated up since the launch in recent months of three new
programs: urban gardening, literacy training, and medical
for the poor.

Chávez vehemently denies the opposition's charges. But he
praised Cuba, ruled since 1960 by dictator Fidel Castro,
free speech is limited, political opponents are often
and independent media banned. Chávez has met frequently with
Mr. Castro, and he once famously called Cuba "a sea of

The Cuban doctors here as part of the "Inside the
exchange program live and work in many of Caracas's poorest
most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where residents previously
to travel long distances and wait hours for medical care.

In April, Viviana Iglesias left her husband and two children
Matanzas, Cuba, for a one-year stay in a poor community high
above downtown Caracas. There, in a small home, she attends
patients. A few years back, she did similar work in Haiti.

If the doctors are expelled for political reasons, she says,
"it will be a disappointment. We give this aid to many
and it has always been accepted well."

Neighbors - who praise the work of the several Cuban doctors
in the neighborhood - say that they have not received
indoctrination. But the Cuban-backed programs have clearly
solidified Chávez's support among the poor, who make up some
two-thirds of Venezuelans, a key constituency for Chávez
a recall referendum on his presidency take place.

"I never voted for Chávez," says Yajaira Gonzales, whose
children Dr. Iglesias treated, "but if there is a vote, I'll
back him."

Hector Larreal, president of the National Assembly's health
subcommittee and a member of the opposition Democratic
Party, says the Cuban doctors are not qualified to work in
Venezuela, and that they prescribe inappropriate
medicines and spread communism.

"The worst part about it is that they come with an
message to orient the communities toward a failed political
system," says Mr. Larreal.

The media, which are overwhelmingly anti-Chávez, have
on a series of cases of alleged malpractice by Cuban
Critics also say that the urban gardens are contaminated by
pollutants, and that the literacy program's goal of teaching
1.5 million people to read is unrealistic. Others even
that some of the Cubans are spies or paramilitary trainers
readying Chávez's most fanatical followers for civil war in
case of his downfall. During the 1960s, Venezuela defeated a
Cuban-backed guerrilla insurgency. Now some ex-military men
fear that the Cubans are back, this time donning hospital
whites instead of Army fatigues.

"What they couldn't do [in the '60s], they are doing now ...
but this time through politics," charges Vice Admiral Rafael
Huizi, founder of an organization of retired military

Back at the urban gardens, Xiomara Hernandez, a business
administrator in Caracas, buys freshly harvested lettuce
she says is better and cheaper than that trucked in from the
countryside. She sees no menace in the Cuban advisers.

"Professors also come from the United States to teach us
things," she says. "Why not accept the good things from a
country which has things to teach us?"


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