Cuba and Venezuela: A Bolivarian Partnership

Reinvigorating the visions of Martí and Bolívar—while respecting one another’s differing systems and different paths toward revolution and change—Cuba and Venezuela have built a relationship based on humanism, solidarity, mutual aid, and a shared vision of a world without poverty and imperialism.

Two of Latin America’s most respected independence figures, José Martí and Simón Bolívar, recognized nearly a century ago, that their homelands would never be free of imperial domination, until Latin America came together in solidarity as a united force.

In the lands of these timeless figures, a unique partnership has developed between Cuba and The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which defies the logic of neo-liberalism. Cuba and Venezuela are demonstrating an alternative relationship based on humanism and solidarity. This ‘demonstration effect’ displays to a world were all are forced into a ‘race to the bottom’, that focusing on the poorest people through a needs-based partnership is not only possible, but also desirable. Their mutual-aid exchanges in educational materials, medical services, and preferential prices of oil are a living counter-example to the competitive and exploitative nature of ‘free trade’.

While Martí and Bolívar advocated for regional unity in the face of colonialism of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, their insights remain all the more relevant in the age of neo-liberal globalization. The former colonists have been replaced by trans- and multi-national corporations and imperial states with the ability to blow up the world many times over.  In addition, seemingly untouchable economic governing bodies (i.e. International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization) allow state and capital to come together to decide the most effective ways to control the world, amass wealth, and terrorize the global populace.

In the lands of Martí and Bolívar

For many decades, the Cuban Revolution has played a distinct role throughout the South as an openly anti-imperialist country interested in relationships based in solidarity, while actively pushing for a more humane economic and social system. On the international scale, Cuba has provided assistance to other countries based on humanistic values instead of solely economic incentives. Although a poor island with little material resources, and highly crippled by the US imposed Blockade, Cuba offers the world medical expertise and humanitarian support.  Nationally, the Cuban Revolution has brought literacy and education to its entire population, free and quality medical assistance to all, housing to the homeless, and food to the hungry.  Cuba has, when possible, actively supported countries and movements who share similar goals of social equity and economic justice.

The rise of the Bolivarian Revolutionary movement to power in 1998, through the election of Hugo Chávez, has meant real change for the poor of Venezuela and the initiation of a different kind of relationship with Cuba. Reinvigorating the visions of Martí and Bolívar—while respecting one another’s differing systems and different paths toward revolution and change—Cuba and Venezuela have built a relationship based on humanism, solidarity, mutual aid, and a shared vision of a world without poverty and imperialism.  The aid that Cuba has provided is most notable in the social sphere. Cuba, rich in human capital and revolutionary experience, is aiding Venezuela as it goes down its own revolutionary path, with its Bolivarian projects and Missions.

Literacy and Healthcare without Borders

The Cuban Revolution has inspired two of the Bolivarian Revolution’s largest accomplishments. The socialization of education and health were an important focus for the Cuba, and similarly today, education and health initiatives are at the core of the Bolivarian project.

With illiteracy affecting 1.5 million people nationally, Venezuela, with assistance from Cuba, set out to devise a literacy program modeled after the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign.[i] In Cuba, students, armed with pencils and paper, traveled throughout the island teaching reading and writing.  Utilizing modern technology, Misión Robinson, Venezuela’s literacy campaign, employs a video literacy program, which was made by Cuba.[ii] Cuba donated thousands of these videos along with TV and VCR sets, printed material for the classroom, reading glasses, and aids to train Venezuelan teachers. Venezuela has adopted these methods and translated the video into different indigenous languages. This tremendous joint effort has eradicated illiteracy in Venezuela.[iii]

Accessible and affordable education and healthcare are essential pieces of the Bolivarian and Cuban Revolutions.  In addition to Cuba’s aid in Misión Robinson, Cuba’s support has been vital for Venezuela’s Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood), a program that brings medical assistance to the poor. Over 20,000 Cuban doctors have participated in the program to date. First doctors lived in people’s homes, but are now working out of offices, and providing free, basic and preventative health care in the poorest neighborhoods of Venezuela. They provide care for seventeen million Venezuelans, nearly two-thirds of the population, many of whom have never before received healthcare. The doctors live within the communities they serve and are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Clinics are stocked with equipment and medicines from Cuba. Additionally, Cuban health specialists have joined the effort to teach about health, diet, and exercise, focusing on preventative care and healthy living.[iv]

It is not solely the medical expertise but also, the experience of working within a system that prioritizes healthcare, which allows the Cuban doctors to aid in the Bolivarian Revolution’s first healthcare initiatives.  In order to meet all of the medical needs of the population and for the project to truly become its own, Venezuela is training doctors, so that Barrio Adentro can be fully staffed and expanded. Many Venezuelans are learning to be doctors through education Missions within Venezuela.  While thousands more are receiving free education in Cuba, attending the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, and upon their return, will be integrated into the Barrio Adentro program.[v]

Oil, Trade, and Solidarity    

The integral relationship between Venezuela and Cuba has further demonstrated the same values of humanism and solidarity can effectively be applied to trade. Cuba has benefited economically the most through the unique trade agreements.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block, between 1989 and 1991, and the addition of extra-territorial stipulations to the U.S. blockade, threw the Cuban economy into deep crisis, resulting in the implementation of the ‘Special Period’, a literal economy of desperation, survival, and scarcity. Although Cuba has officially recovered from its economic depression, increased trade with Venezuela has been a relief.  Venezuela has become Cuba’s top trading partner, providing oil, food, and construction materials at preferential prices. This assistance is essential to the maintenance of Cuba’s social system, achieved by the revolution.

Defying hedonistic neo-liberal and ‘free market’ dogma, whereby a country uses a ‘comparative advantage’ to exploit its trading partners, Cuba and Venezuela have committed to oil accords, selling oil at below market value, and to a system of bartering. Venezuela has agreed to sell oil at a preferential rate to Cuba, so that despite rising prices in the world market, Cuba will purchase oil below this price. Moreover, the two nations have been bartering oil for medical services and technical services in the agricultural, tourist and sports industry, demonstrating a humanistic approach to trade which values health and sustainability as important ‘resources’.[vi]

Cuba and Venezuela are constructing a relationship that transcends the logic of markets and profits as the primary elements that should define trade. In effect, the two nations assess what goods and services will be exchanged based on analysis of each others’ needs and capabilities. This fosters an economic partnership that views the goods and resources of each nation as potential tools in supporting and aiding in the other’s revolutionary processes. The larger effect of the mutual-exchange model is the demonstration of an ‘efficient’ alternative to market-driven ‘free-trade’, offering a vision for Latin American unity and integration that is radically different from the dominant neo-liberal model.

Towards a United Latin America

In 2002, Cuba’s Fidel Castro tried to capture the nature of the distinctive Cuban-Venezuelan relationship, stating: “We share a mutual awareness of the need to unite the Latin American and Caribbean nations and to struggle for a world economic order that brings more justice to all people”.  Revitalizing the ideals of José Martí and Simón Bolívar for a united Latin America, Cuba and Venezuela have together taken steps to eventually make this a reality.[vii]

One such example toward a cooperative integration is exhibited through Misión Milagro (Mission Miracle), a hemisphere-wide program dedicated to providing eye surgery to the poor, free of charge. Venezuela provides the air travel to Cuba, and Cuban doctors perform the operation. Thousands have already participated in this hemispheric program, and Misión Milagro is designed to assist hundreds of thousands more.  With Venezuela offering the travel, and Cuba, the treatment, this truly internationalist initiative is able to provide a specific medical service for the poor of the Americas.[viii]

Cuba and Venezuela have also collaborated with Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina to create the first Latin American joint venture satellite television station, TeleSur (Television from the South). The station is designed to be an alternative to CNN, providing viewpoints and voices from the South.  TeleSur broadcasts international news and specializes in Latin American-made independent documentaries, relaying both a political and artistic perspective from Latin America.

Two further projects for Latin American integration are PetroAmerica, and the more encompassing ALternativa Bolivariana para las Americas (ALBA), a counter proposal to the US-backed ALCA (Free Trade Area of the Americas).

PetroAmerica would consolidate the energy resources such as oil, natural gas, and electricity within the Caribbean, South and Central America, guaranteeing Latin America all of its energy needs. Moreover the semi-continentalist venture would provide autonomy over natural resources for the respective nations to use for their collective benefit, effectively shutting out the ability of foreign capital to export the profits away from the native populations and into the Global North.

Similarly, although more grandiose, ALBA would integrate the economies of Latin American based on the principles and methods between Cuba-Venezuelan of mutual-exchange, planning trade around the values of humanism, solidarity and self-determination and by assessing needs and capabilities.[ix] An overall contrast to the Social Darwinist policy of ALCA, where profits are the sole arbiter of success, as opposed to, the elimination of poverty, or the overall development of poor nations.


Although Cuba and Venezuela are nurturing the visions of Martí and Bolívar, they face economic and political limitations that threaten the realization of their grand project.  As Chávez contends in a 2002 interview with Marta Harnecker, “There has been a change in the legal-political structure” but, “the essence of the socio-economic structure of the country, we have advanced very little.”[x]  Up to this point, Venezuela has heavily relied on utilizing its petroleum reserves and revenues as a means of contributing to the unification of the Americas as well as internal social progress, however, these capabilities are not infinite. If and when oil runs out, or prices fall in the world market, along with Venezuela’s socio-economic structure continuing to be tied to corporate power, the integration of the Americas will be limited in its reach and scope. 

As for Cuba—remaining isolated in the Caribbean—their integration into a Latin American-centered economy cannot be achieved with Venezuela alone.  The US-imposed blockade has asphyxiated the Cuban economy and hence, its ability to initiate programs that reach beyond its own survival.  As the United States moves forward with the FTAA, a proposed free-trade bloc that incorporates every country of the hemisphere, except Cuba, Cuba is further marginalized.  Cuba’s future largely depends on a change in the current balance of power. A united, anti-imperialist Latin America could bring about this transformation.

Ever since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the pending Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and many political leaders of the Americas signing on to a US agenda; a united counter-hegemonic force of the kind Cuba and Venezuela seek is all the more difficult.  At this point, much of Cuba and Venezuela’s hope has relied on Leftist leaders being swept into power by popular movements in Latin America.  Unfortunately, Lula, Kirchner, and Vasquez of Uruguay have not fulfilled many of their electorate promises.  While invoking populist and often times, anti-imperialist language many of the claimed ‘leftist’ leaders have capitulated to the center, either by their own politics or by the pressures of foreign capital and debt.  Although Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have contributed to TeleSur, promoting a shift from US domination of the media, their collaboration only goes as far as mounting a united counter-power to Northern hegemony.  In many cases, they play by the rules of neo-liberalism, in the hopes that a United South America could out-compete the US, and beat them at their own game.

Despite concessions and limitations, Cuba and Venezuela have met other nations willing to challenge the hyper-power to the North, with open arms, in hopes that the strength of their unity can encourage their neighbors to move in a more progressive direction.

Looking Forward

With a strategy based in the election of leftist leaders, the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia holds great promise of a united anti-imperialist Latin America. Morales, an indigenous socialist, will assume the presidency of Bolivia in January of 2006. He has spoken to the necessity of the nationalization of natural resources, redistribution of wealth, collaboration with Venezuela and Cuba, and has openly condemned U.S. imperialism.

Directly following his election, Morales visited Cuba and Venezuela, signing cooperation agreements based on solidarity, humanism, and the advancement of Latin American integration. Evo and Fidel signed a bilateral agreement in which Cuba will fully equip two eye care centers; one in La Paz and the other in Cochabamba, providing free eye care to Bolivians. Additionally, Fidel extended 5,000 scholarships for the training of Bolivian doctors and specialists. With the help of Cuba and Venezuela, a program to eradicate literacy will begin in July, 2006.  Evo and Chávez have agreed on a process in which Venezuela will help with Bolivia’s Constitutional Assembly. Chávez has also promised to provide Evo’s government with a $30 million donation for social projects. Furthermore, Venezuela will supply all of Bolivia’s diesel fuel needs in direct exchange for Bolivia’s agricultural products.     

Cuba and Venezuela’s ‘demonstration effect’ of mutual exchange, rooted in humanism and solidarity is breathing life into ALBA.  Now, as Bolivia joins their ranks there is greater possibility for the vision of Martí and Bolívar.   Evo Morales shares this vision, as he has stated, “[t]ogether, united, we are going to change history, not only in Bolivia but in all of Latin America and free ourselves from US imperialism.”[xi]

[i] Brian Lyons and Rich Palser (2005) Cuba and Venezuela: Breaking the Chains of Underdevelopment in Latin America, North London Cuban Solidarity Campaign. pp. 71 & 73.

[ii] Named after Simón Bolivar’s friend and teacher Simón Rodríguez, who changed his named to Samuel Robinson after Robinson Crusoe.

[iii] Richard Gott (2005), Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso. p. 258.

[iv] See ibid. pgs. 257-258; Brian Lyons and Rich Palser (2005), pp. 69-73; Claudia Jardim, “Prevention and Solidarity: Democratizing Health in Venezuela,” Monthly Review, January 2005. Also see, Hugo Chavez’s speech to the United Nations in New York City, 2005.

[v] See; Peter Maybarduk, “A People’s Health System: Venezuela Works to Bring Healthcare to the Excluded,” Multinational Monitor, October 2004; and Richard Gott (2005), p. 257.

[vi] Steve Ellner, “Venezuela’s ‘Demonstration Effect’: Defying Globalization’s Logic,” NACLA, reprinted at Venezuelanalysis.com at www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1579 on Monday, Oct 17, 2005.

Marta Harnecker (and translated by Chesa Boudin) (2005), Understanding The Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker, Monthly Review Press, p.120.

[vii] Fidel Castro wrote these words in his book: War, Racism, and Economic Injustice, Ocean Press, Melbourne: 2002, pp. 63-64, but cited here from Brian Lyons and Richard Palser (2005), p.77.

[viii] See Hugo Chavez’s speech to the United Nations, 2005.

[ix] Marta Harnecker (and translated by Chesa Boudin) (2005), pp. 122-23 and pp. 113, 120-21.

[x] ibid. p.107.

[xi] Joaquin Rivery Tur (January 1, 2006).