Cuba relieved as Chavez heir wins in Venezuela

Cuba avoids oil cutoff for now as Chavez ally narrowly wins Venezuela presidential election

Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) -- Cubans were relieved Monday by the announcement that the late leader Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor had been elected Venezuela's new president, apparently allowing their country to dodge a threatened cutoff of billions of dollars in subsidized oil.

Cuban President Raul Castro sent a congratulatory message to Nicolas Maduro, who is seen as an ideological ally who will want to continue the countries' special relationship as he serves out the remainder of Chavez's six-year term.

"The main thing from Cuba's point of view is that he's won, if it's ratified," said Paul Webster Hare, a lecturer in international relations at Boston University and former British diplomatic envoy to both Venezuela and Cuba.

"They will probably be thinking that they now have perhaps a maximum of five years of Venezuelan subsidies left," Hare said, "because if the trend continues moving against him, as I think is likely, this will be the last term even if they are able to continue all the subsidies for that period. ... The clock's ticking for that relationship."

Venezuela ships an estimated 92,000 barrels of oil per day worth $3.2 billion a year to the island, providing for about half its consumption. Cuba accounts for about half that figure through barter deals, sending legions of medics, sports trainers, political advisers and other specialists to the South American nation. The remainder is covered by 25-year, 1 percent interest loans.

That amounts to an economic lifeline for the island nation, which is in the middle of an attempt to boost its perennially sagging economy with a series of reforms.

More than a dozen other poor countries around Latin America and the Caribbean have also benefited greatly from Venezuela oil aid on generous terms.

Maduro's opponent, Henrique Capriles, had said on the campaign trail that as president he would ensure that "not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros."

No surprise, then, that Raul Castro's government was among the first to congratulate Maduro.

"In name of the Government and people of Cuba, I congratulate you on this transcendental triumph, which demonstrates the fortitude of the ideas and work of Commander Hugo Chavez," Castro said in his message, published on the front page of Communist Party newspaper Granma.

Maduro, who has been serving as acting president, saw the double-digit lead he had in the polls soon after Chavez's death in early March wither in the run-up to Sunday's vote. Electoral officials said he ultimately received 50.7 percent to Capriles' 49.1 percent.

Some said that razor-thin victory margin, which had Capriles demanding a recount, bodes ill for Maduro's political future and could mean Cuba's relief will be short-lived.

"The difference in votes is very small, and I think that it will be very hard for Maduro to govern," said Maite Romero, a 74-year-old retiree. "For us in Cuba, I'm very pessimistic. I think it will be a debacle."

"This result demonstrated that Maduro decidedly is not Chavez, and now is the time for him to show that he is the worthy successor," added Diego Franco, 69. "Once more it is clear that we have to solve our problems ourselves and not continue to depend on others."

Others were more optimistic.

Maduro "will go forward like Chavez, his ideals and thoughts always supporting the Cuban people," said Felix Montero, a construction worker. "He will always have the support of the Cuban people."

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Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

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