Backed by Fidel Castro, and launched by Hugo Chávez, the project of forging an alliance between the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela, dubbed "Cubazuela" (or "Venecuba"), began amidst much fanfare. The ideological firmness of the former and the oil-based riches of the latter would combine, they believed, to lay the foundations for an indestructible, booming socialism. Petroleum at the service of the "Revolution".
For Cuba this project was its only lifeline. After having demolished an economy like Cuba's —which, when Castro took over in 1959, was the third richest in Latin America in terms of per capita GDP— the "Revolution" managed to survive thanks only to the lavish aid provided it by the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc and, consequently, the end to that vital funding, the Castro regime subjected the Cuban people to the stifling deprivations of the grueling "Special Period," which were not politically sustainable.
It was necessary, therefore, to find a new benefactor, and they did, in the form of Hugo Chávez Frías, who exhibited a blind passion for Castroism.
At the beginning of the Cubazuela project, its leaders faced a dilemma: whether to carry over to Venezuela the failed Castroist economic model, based on the demonization of private initiative, and nationalization; or, on the contrary, learn lessons from this ill-fated experience and try something different, in line with the imperatives of market laws and, hence, more efficient.
The brothers Castro and Hugo Chavez, succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, chose the first option. In this decision a key factor was surely the fact that Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves in the world, prompting its leaders to conclude that they would be able to fill Venezuela's prisons and cemeteries with impunity, ignore the laws of economic profitability governing a market economy, and assign priority to the consolidation of hardline, orthodox socialism —even though it has never managed to produce progress.
Their decision has wrought a colossal fiasco. Venezuela's economy is now as shattered as Cuba’s. A shortage of staple products, three-digit inflation, and unsustainable external debt are the main components of an economic collapse that has pushed Venezuela to the brink of a social breakdown and a political and institutional crisis with unpredictable consequences.
Castroism is, unquestionably, partly to blame for the Venezuelan debacle. How could it not, when thousands of Cuban "advisers" lurk in Venezuela's ministries and headquarters? It is impossible to conclude, therefore, that the economic approach of the chavista regime, both under Hugo Chávez, and now under Nicolás Maduro, was adopted and maintained without consulting the Castro regime and receiving its approval.
Thus, the economic fiasco of the country richest in oil marks a dual failure of Castroism, even more spectacular and humiliating than the collapse of what was once the Americas' third most prosperous economy.
To this two-fold economic disaster we must add a third failure of Castroism, of a political nature: having believed that it could reproduce in Venezuela the repressive system that allowed the Cuban regime to survive for more than five decades.
This scheme has been upended by the mass demonstrations against the Castro/Maduro regime currently being held in Venezuela.
In its eagerness to replicate the repressive model in place in Cuba, castrochavismo miscalculated, overlooking historical and geographical differences, not realizing that conditions in Venezuela today are very different from those prevailing at the time when the Cuban regime managed to shore up its power through repression.
At that time Castroism benefitted from the economic and political protection of the Soviet Union. Under these special conditions there was no international pressure or internal economic malaise sufficient to shake the regime in Havana. Castroism could act with impunity, dispense with international legitimacy, flout the most basic principles profitability, turn its back on the financial markets, and even renege on its foreign debt, because it had political protection from the Kremlin and the inexhaustible manna showered on its by the Soviet Union.
Such is not the case in Venezuela today, and this is for two reasons.
First of all, the capacity for resistance in Venezuela is currently greater than it ever was under the Castros' tyranny in Cuba. Proof of this is the fact that castrochavismo failed to prevent the opposition's overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of December 2015. Also demonstrating this capability is the Venezuelan regime's backing down from its intended coup against the National Assembly, now in the hands of the opposition. And, finally, there is the tenacity with which the Venezuelan people have taken to the streets to demand general elections and the liberation of more than 100 political prisoners.
Secondly, in contrast to Cuba at the time it received support from the Soviet Union, and later, during the years of soaring international oil prices, which allowed Hugo Chávez to sustain Castroism, Venezuela's economically exhausted regime does not have any benefactor willing to rescue it. It cannot even welch on its financial commitments (like Cuba did), or forego new international loans.
In the political failure of Cubazuela's hierarchs, a key role has been played by brave Venezuelans who have concluded that it is better to risk their lives, demanding democracy and freedom, than to slowly die of hunger, repression and uncertainty.
In an attempt to quell the growing indignation and mobilization of the Venezuelan people, Maduro and his associates have ratcheted up the repression to appalling levels, triggering widespread repudiation by governments of the region and other key players in the international community.
Maduro and his Cuban advisers do not realize that it does them as much damage, or more, in terms of their international image, to quash protests, by means of murder and tear gas, than to allow demonstrations that illustrate the magnitude of popular discontent in the country.
The strength and tenacity of the protests, and international pressure, are fracturing el chavismo. Some have reacted with genuine moral repudiation to the repression unleashed by the Venezuelan regime, while others are simply afraid of being declared accessories to crimes against humanity (which do not prescribe). Between the two groups, there will be fewer and fewer chavistas willing to commit to the cadre overseeing them.
The convocation, by decree, of a constituent assembly, recently announced by Maduro, for the ostensible purpose of circumventing the National Assembly and preventing free and fair general elections, will only exacerbate the people's repudiation of the regime and elicit criticism, even within the ranks of el chavismo.
The Cubazuela project, thus, winds to an inglorious end, doomed to go down as a historical and moral disgrace.
Its death comes at a critical time for the Cuban regime. With the economic collapse of Venezuela, and the paltry results obtained by Raúl Castro's "updates" (confirming that Castroism has still learned nothing about Economics), the new generation waiting in the wings of power in Havana will be forced to question the socialist model and —if only to avoid the surge of popular indignation that a new "Special Period" would unleash— accept the economic and political opening up that Martí’s noble and suffering are yearning for.