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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Fears of Cuban 'infiltration' in Venezuela
By Mike Ceaser
In Caracas

Urban garden in Caracas
The garden co-operative's members say they are not being indoctrinated
When Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez announced the launching of an urban gardens programme, he said it would produce jobs and reduce the country's dependence on imported food.

It has. But Mr Chavez may not have bargained that the rows of lettuce, cucumber and mint now thriving amidst the traffic and high-rises of downtown Caracas would also produce a harvest of controversy.

The controversy has arisen because many of the advisers assisting with the gardening programme are Cubans. And Mr Chavez's opponents, who accuse him of desiring to convert Venezuela into a communist dictatorship similar to that led by his friend, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, suspect that the Cubans are here to do more than teach farming.

Chavez critics charge that the Cubans' true goal is to teach communism, spy or even provide paramilitary training to pro-Chavez guerrilla organisations.

"[The Cubans in Venezuela] are persons prepared to indoctrinate," said retired Vice Admiral Rafael Huici, founder of an organisation of retired military officers.

The gardening advisers are only one of several groups of Cubans here. There are also Cuban doctors living and working in Caracas's poorest neighbourhoods, and other Cubans assisting with a nationwide adult literacy programme. Altogether, more than 1,000 Cubans are said to be here working with government-organised programmes.

Hugo Chavez (right) with Cuban leader Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro is Hugo Chavez's closest international ally
Opposition parliamentarian Hector Larreal, president of the National Assembly's health subcommittee, says the Cuban doctors are not qualified to practice in Venezuela, and that they prescribe inappropriate medicines and spread communism.

"The worst part about it is that they come with an ideological message to orient the communities towards a failed political system," he said.

The anti-Chavez media has headlined a stream of alleged cases of malpractice by the Cuban doctors. But Mr Chavez's critics, who tried to oust him in 2002 with an aborted military coup and later a crippling petroleum strike, have not backed up their most sensational accusations with evidence.

After nearly five years under his "Bolivarian revolution for the poor", Venezuela has remained firmly capitalistic. But the president has not hidden his admiration for communist Cuba, whose leader is Mr Chavez's closest international ally.

Mr Chavez once famously described Cuba, an impoverished nation where free speech is sharply restricted and independent media banned, as "the sea of happiness".

And the Venezuelan president did not join many other world leaders in criticising the recent jailings of dozens of Cuban democracy activists.

But he denies having any intention of communising his nation. Rather, he says he wants to benefit from Cuba's internationally-recognised achievements in fields such as literacy and health.

Good reviews

On the half-hectare farm plot in central Caracas, squeezed in between a pair of busy avenues and the Hilton Hotel, communist infiltration is not evident.

Members of the 11-person co-operative tending the land say they are not being indoctrinated. And, in fact, the garden sells its produce very capitalistically from a kiosk facing a neighbouring plaza.

If we get kicked out, then the neighbourhood will remain like it was before - marginalised
Suisberto Fernandez, Cuban doctor
In the farm plot's five months' existence, the co-operative's members have harvested some four tonnes of produce from what was previously a piece of barren, weedy land.

The co-operative's members, who are paid by a share of the garden's sales, are previously-unemployed residents of a nearby poor neighbourhood.

"I never imagined that I'd work in this," said Francisco Riqueno, 24, a shoemaker by trade. "I like the physical labour."

The Cuban doctors, too, have produced good reviews in the poor neighbourhoods where they are stationed.

"In my 40 years, there's never been work like (the Cubans) are doing," said Paula Bastidas, a member of the Health Commission of San Augustin neighbourhood.

Ms Bastidas said that before the Cubans' arrival, residents had to travel long distances to public hospitals, which often make poor patients wait hours before being seen.

Solidifying support

Ironically, part of the Cubans' value to Mr Chavez may actually be democratic. On 19 August, Mr Chavez reached the halfway point of his term under the new constitution, making a recall referendum on his rule constitutionally possible.

With the opposition pushing for a vote and the president's popularity falling to about 30% in the polls, the Cuban-inspired initiatives appear to be solidifying support for him among his base of poor Venezuelans.

Across town, Dr Suisberto Fernandez is working in the poor Macayapa neighbourhood, a collection of tin-roofed concrete homes clinging high on a hillside, where he said respiratory troubles, skin infections and adolescent pregnancy are common.

Dr Fernandez said he and the other Cubans are well aware that they are in Venezuela thanks only to Mr Chavez, and that if he falls, the Cubans will surely go, too.

"We came here to help these barrios," Dr Fernandez said. "If we get kicked out, then [the barrio] will remain like it was before - marginalised. Because no Venezuelan doctor ever comes here."

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