With a little under a month to go before Venezuela's presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he'd displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.
Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. "Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros," he told the crowd.
It's hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse.
From 1991 onwards, Cuba, unable to afford Russian oil at market prices, drastically reduced its oil imports by around 10 million barrels per year. When Chavez came to power in 1999, he staved off Cuba's growing immiseration by providing the island with preferentially-priced oil that typically saved Fidel Castro between $2 and $4 billion annually. While it's true that Castro learned from the Soviet experience by not becoming exclusively dependent on Chavez–the value of Cuba's trade with Venezuela is perhaps half of what it was with the Soviet Union–any regime change in Caracas would certainly accelerate a similar process in Havana.
During his election campaign last year, Capriles complained that the relationship with Cuba was hopelessly one-sided. At one point, he calculated that the oil subsidies were five times more expensive than Cuba's reciprocal provision of doctors and other healthcare professionals to Venezuela. However, Capriles stopped short of bluntly announcing–as he did today–that Chavez's ideologically-loaded largesse toward Cuba would continue no more.
In other recent duels with the regime, Capriles has shown a previously unglimpsed mettle. In 2012, Chavez's supporters seized upon both Capriles' unmarried status and his Jewish origins to denounce him, variously, as a Zionist and a homosexual. Confronted with the latter assault, Capriles preferred to leave such blockheaded homophobia unchallenged, drawing attention instead to the string of glamorous women he'd dated in the past. But when, last week, Chavez's appointed successor Nicolas Maduro tried the same tack, Capriles responded by denouncing "the homophobic declarations made by Nicolas," which smacked, he added, of "fascism."
Indeed, the tone with which Capriles addresses Maduro is noticeably different from that he adopted with Chavez. For example, Capriles would never have called Chavez "chico"–"boy"–as he did when he reminded Maduro, the current acting president, that the Venezuelan people hadn't voted for him. Equally, the Capriles of last year was distinctly reticent about drawing attention to the role of the armed forces in backing the Chavistas. This year, he took to Twitter to label Venezuelan Defense Minister Admiral Diego Molero, who violated the country's ban on military involvement in politics in pledging support for Maduro, as a "disgrace to the armed forces."
In adopting this confrontational strategy, Capriles is betting that it's easier to beat a phantom Chavez than a live one. The longer Maduro presents himself as the embodiment of Chavez's legacy, the easier it is for Capriles to lampoon him as a mediocre impostor who anxiously hangs on every word uttered by his real political master, Raul Castro. And Maduro does, to be sure, seem very nervous: his latest bout of conspiracy theorizing involves the claim that two former Bush Administration officials, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, were engaged in a "far right" plot to assassinate none other than Capriles himself (thus inviting us to conclude that this particular ruse would end with an American invasion of Venezuela.) Without the bombastic, earthy Chavez to declaim such nonsense, Maduro looks forlorn, more than anything else.
Capriles isn't buying the assassination scare, tweeting that should anything happen to him, the responsibility would lie with Maduro. The State Department–which issued a typically disinterested rebuttal to Maduro's accusations against Noriega and Reich–should carefully note that statement.