Cubans weigh backlash if Chavez loses poll

Oct. 5, 2012 at 3:52 PM
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HAVANA, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Cuba is weighing potential economic fallout if Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fails to win a new term in Sunday's presidential election.

Despite Cuba's tentative shift toward a market economy, with Chinese-style communist trappings, the island nation is heavily dependent on largess from Chavez's Bolivarian revolution.

Cuba receives the bulk of its oil needs from Venezuela at preferential rates and on deferred payment terms. Cuba also depends on remittances from more than 40,000 professionals that now work in Venezuela, running state hospitals, government bureaucracy, state industries and state institutions.

Amid popular Venezuelan ambivalence about the Cuban socialist "guess workers," the future of the migrant community remains linked to the future of Chavez at the polls Sunday, when he faces off opposition contender Henrique Capriles.

Both candidates are tipped to win, conflicting interpretations of pre-election voter trends predict.

Opposition critics say Chavez may resort to support from the military if he fails to secure the vote. Chavez has been undergoing medical treatment for an unspecified cancer ailment, with many of the procedures said to have been performed in Cuba.

The nature of the cancer and Chavez's chances of surviving it remain a closely guarded secret.

Cuban economic reforms, begun last year, are still in an early stage and economic restructuring has seen thousands of bureaucrats turfed out to fend for themselves as self-starting entrepreneurs.

Despite the ambitious shift from the state as Cuba's largest employer to a hybrid economic model of uncertain outcome, Venezuelan subsidies remain crucial to the country's economic performance.

Much of Cuban concern over the Venezuelan election's outcome stems from memories of the experience of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, which removed Cuba's main ally, causing widespread economic paralysis at the time.

Cuban officials say the U.S. embargo on the country, the longest in history, is to blame for Cuba's abject dependence on Venezuela.

U.S. President Barack Obama ruled out a softening of U.S. policy toward Cuba, warning the administration wanted to see more substantial political and economic reforms.

"Any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we've not yet seen the full results of these promises," Obama said in a White House meeting with Spanish-language media.

Despite the recent release of 40 jailed dissidents by Cuban President Raul Castro's government, Obama said there are still "too many political prisoners who languish in Cuban prisons."

Obama cited new uncertainties facing Cubans with Castro's plans to lay off more than 500,000 state employees and push them toward exploring opportunities in the emerging business environment.

Despite the announced reforms, Obama said, Cuba's economy remains anchored in the past.

"We want to continue to explore the possibilities of changing relations," he said, alluding to his decision last year to end restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel and remittances to their homeland.

"But before we take any more steps, we want to see that the Castro regime is serious about different ways to deal with the situation," the U.S. president said in comments carried by Spanish news agency EFE.

Bipartisan efforts in U.S. Congress to liberalize travel to Cuba for all U.S. residents remain on hold, as do attempts to further loosen the 48-year-old economic embargo.

In contrast, Chavez has announced plans to expand his Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and continue to forge closer relations with Cuba. Venezuelan funds will fund development projects alongside joint ventures proposed with Brazil.

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