When Venezuela's former ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria, learned that President Hugo Chavez had expropriated his ranch, his first reaction was to announce that he would submit a complaint to the Cuban Embassy. That's where the real power in Venezuela lies, he said.
Arria said he would deliver to the Cuban Embassy his farm's property deeds showing that he is the legitimate owner of the 840-acre ranch in the state of Yaracuy.
"I'm going straight to those who run this country, the Cubans," Arria told me earlier this week. "Because it's the Cubans who make the key decisions here, and because they are much better organized than the Venezuelan government."
He added that Venezuela officially signed a 2005 contract with Cuba to help manage Venezuela's national identification and public registry services, "which means that all issues on who owns a property are now in the hands of Cubans."
Granted, Arria's public protest was a publicity stunt by a wealthy Venezuelan who is known to have political ambitions. But it's also a reflection of growing anxiety within Venezuela's political and military circles over the growing influence of Cuban advisors in key government offices.
In addition to the more than 30,000 Cuban teachers, physicians and sports coaches in the country in exchange for Venezuela's massive oil subsidies, there has been a steady increase of Cuban advisors who are helping manage -- or control, depending on who you ask -- key branches of the armed forces, police agencies, the president's security guard, telecommunications, ports and airports and national identification and public registries.
Cuba is increasingly worried about Chavez's political future in light of Venezuela's growing food shortages, electricity blackouts, massive corruption and Latin America's highest inflation rates. Fearing that it could lose the 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day that Venezuela sends to the island, Cuba is on a rescue mission to help manage Venezuela's inefficient and corruption-ridden government offices.
Consider some of the latest headlines in Venezuela:
• Shortly before Arria's statements, Venezuelan Gen. Antonio Rivero said he retired from the army in April because he did not agree with "the meddling of Cuban soldiers" in Venezuela's armed forces. Rivero told reporters that Cubans are now placed "at a high level in vital areas of national security," the Associated Press reported.
• Another former Venezuelan general, Angel Vivas Perdomo, issued a statement April 28 criticizing Chávez's decision to adopt the Cuban armed forces salute "Fatherland, Socialism or Death." Vivas Perdomo is being charged with insubordination for refusing to accept the salute.
• On May 2, Chavez lost his cool when a reporter from Venezuela's Televen network asked him about the growing clout of Cuban advisors in Venezuela. Chavez said that "Cuba is helping us modestly in some things that I won't detail," and went on to lash out against the reporter's television network.
• In February, powerful Cuban vice president and former interior minister Ramiro Valdes visited Venezuela to allegedly help Chavez solve an electricity crisis that had led to growing street protests. Valdes' visit was widely seen as the most telling sign of Cuba's growing role in helping manage Venezuela's government.
The Cuban official, who among other things heads Cuba's Internet censorship office, has little or no experience in electricity crises. Venezuelan opposition leaders said his real mission was to lay out a new strategy to crack down on Venezuela's Internet-savvy opposition.
My opinion: Venezuela's growing alliance with Cuba — "Venecuba," or "Cubazuela," depending on which country you believe has the upper hand — is a marriage of convenience that may backfire for Chavez.
It doesn't sit well with Venezuela's military, many of whose officers had to swallow hard when Chavez first stated in 2005 that Cuba and Venezuela are "a single nation" with "one flag," nor when he later adopted Cuba's "Fatherland, Socialism or Death" salute.
And it doesn't sit well with the Venezuelan people. Polls have consistently shown that more than 75 percent of Venezuelans do not like the idea of their country becoming like Cuba. Chavez, who has made a religion of "national sovereignty," may be playing with fire by allowing Cuba to run his country.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.