Venezuelan oil production is dropping rapidly and the government has no money to buy food, medicines or consumer goods, but there is one item that the socialist regime of President Nicolas Maduro seems unwilling to sacrifice under any circumstances: oil subsidies to Cuba.
News reports that a shipment of 500,000 barrels of crude was on its way this week to the port of Matanzas in northwestern Cuba sparked indignation among many in Venezuela, a country suffering under the worst economic crisis of its history.
The oil that Venezuela supplies to Cuba equals about 55,000 barrels per day and costs about $1.2 billion per year, money that could help the country curb inflation, import urgently needed medicines or provide food to the 9 million Venezuelans who say they eat only once per day.
But Maduro has made it clear that he prefers to keep supermarkets empty rather than suspend the shipments to Cuba, said Antonio De La Cruz, executive director of the Washington-based consultancy firm Inter American Trends.
"Because Cuba today is the real mainstay of his power," said De La Cruz. "Without the Cuban support, Maduro would have been gone a long time ago. Havana today is supplying him with the instruments of repression and the intelligence apparatus that allows him to stay in power despite the tornado he faces."
The late President Hugo Chavez initiated the cooperation program with Cuba, in which Caracas used crude to pay for the services of the tens of thousands of Cuban medical personnel assigned to work in Venezuela.
But the program, which at one point cost Venezuela more than $5 billion per year, also paid for Cuban assistance with intelligence and national security issues, according to documents from the U.S. State Department and Stratfor, a private intelligence agency, published by WikiLeaks.
"The capacity of Venezuelan intelligence got a strong push after Chavez allied with Cuba," one Stratfor analyst wrote in a private email. "That's the reason why Chavez is in debt with (Cuba). ... His regime can detect every plot beforehand and keep watch on the opposition because of the large number of Cubans involved in intelligence collection."
"What we must remember is that SEBIN (Venezuela's intelligence service) has never been as effective if not for the Cubans. If Cuba at some point decides to withdraw its cooperation, Chavez would have to quickly develop an intelligence capability, because otherwise he would be in trouble," the analyst added.