VENEZUELA Cuban influence in Venezuela spreading The 40,000 Cubans now
working in Venezuela have a hand in all kinds of sectors -- including
security for President Hugo Chávez. BY CASTO OCANDO El Nuevo Herald

Cuban influence in Venezuela is growing beyond politics in a broad range of
areas, from agriculture and commerce to energy and education -- and even
presidential security.

Some 40,000 Cubans are now working in Venezuela, and the island has received
millions of dollars in petroleum subsidies that sway between 90,000 and
130,000 barrels a day, according to some estimates.

Héctor Navarro, Venezuela's minister of education, revealed last month that
a group of Cuban experts are giving his government lessons in public

''Cubans are advising on how to measure the educational impact in
mathematics and language arts,'' Navarro told the Caracas daily El
Universal. ``It is about creating [ways to gauge] the competency that our
students must handle.''

Until now, the most notable Cuban activity had centered on the *Barrio
Adentro* program, which places Cuban healthcare, education and social
service workers in low-income neighborhoods throughout Venezuela.

Cuban influence has quietly broadened to include less visible sectors,
though critically more strategic and political in scope.

Sources within the Venezuelan military say Cuban military experts control
several security circles that protect President Hugo Chávez and have
penetrated strategic areas of the armed forces and the central government,
including the situation room in Miraflores, Venezuela's presidential palace.

The Venezuelan government recently announced a program that will supervise
police forces throughout the country, and Cuban advisors will play a
critical role.

Bilateral projects include geology and mining, with a short-term goal of
using Cuban technical assistance to exploit mining reserves.

Dozens of projects are under way to ''identify, quantify and explore gold,
diamonds, nickel, salt and calcium deposits,'' said Avilo Lavarca, president
of the Venezuelan National Institute of Geology and Mining.

Sixty Cuban experts are participating in 11 programs to explore and exploit
mineral deposits, including nickel. Cuba is the world's sixth leading
producer of nickel, and Venezuela holds sizeable reserves and is developing
a processing plant plan.

The Cuban influence reaches nearly every sector of economic activity and
daily life. At a recent news conference, Ramiro Valdes, Cuban Minister of
Information Technology and Communications, detailed a plan to ''liberate''
technology that will allow Cuba to broaden Internet access through a fiber
optic line from Venezuela.

The 1,500 kilometer connection could be in operation by 2010, Valdes said.
The network would be capable of transmitting 160 gigabytes per second, 1,000
times faster than the island's current satellite connection, he said.

Even lions, giraffes and hippopotamuses at the Caricuao Zoo in Caracas are
being acquired through the Havana Zoo.

During the recent referendum in which the indefinite reelection of Chávez
was approved, Cuban television preempted regularly scheduled programs for
live coverage of Chávez's victory speech.

Experts say Chávez's victory brings stability to the relationship. It
''dissipates doubts about the political durability of Cuba's most important
ally, and will postpone the date that the island will be forced to live
without the shipments of Venezuelan petroleum subsidies,'' wrote Dan
Erikson, a Cuba expert from the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Three days after the referendum, Cuban authorities began working on a plan
to export thousands of farm workers to Venezuela to seek to develop the
fertile plains of the Orinoco river basin, site of the largest oil reserves.

The plan generated an immediate and negative reaction in Venezuela. ''There
are enough men and women [here], with enough capacity to increase the
nation's agricultural production,'' said Gustavo Moreno, president of the
Venezuelan Federation of Agricultural Producers.

Beyond agriculture, the two nations have created more than 30 joint ventures
and more than 300 projects that include millions of dollars in investments
since Chávez came to power in 1999.

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