Fear and hope in Cuba over Venezuela protests

Weeks of protests in ally Venezuela are reviving the concerns of many Cubans dependent on the largesse of the socialist Caracas government while buoying the opposition on the communist island.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is facing his biggest test since succeeding the late Hugo Chavez last year in a narrowly won election, with near-daily demonstrations against his administration leaving 17 people dead since early February.

His Cuban counterpart Raul Castro has described the nationwide unrest in Venezuela -- Havana's prime political and economic partner -- as "complex" and assured his "full support for the Chavismo movement, the Bolivarian Revolution and Comrade Nicolas Maduro."

Cubans do not enjoy open access to unfettered information about the unrest in Venezuela because of restrictions on the media at home, but enough news has filtered through to have many of them worried about the impact it might have on them economically.

The nightmare of the "special period," a time of terrible shortages that followed the fall of the Soviet empire, another key Cuban ally, in the 1990s, is still fresh in the memory of many Cubans.

"Things are bad again," sighed retiree Maria, 59, watching television footage of Maduro proclaiming the student and opposition protests against him were part of a "fascist plot" to bring him down.

Maria receives daily messages from her concerned children in Spain asking how Cubans are reacting to what is happening in Venezuela, which is by far Cuba's number one economic partner, accounting for 40 percent of the island's foreign trade.

It supplies Cuba with 100,000 barrels of oil a day at preferential terms, providing half its energy needs. It is also the top client for services exported by Havana.

Rosa Alina Gomez, 64, a road sweeper, is also concerned, especially for the 40,000 Cuban doctors and health care professionals working in Venezuela's dilapidated healthcare sector.

"It could do much harm to Cuba and other Latin American countries because Maduro's government helps a lot of people," said Gomez, dragging her broom across the cobblestones of old Havana.

- 'Bravo!' -

Not everyone shares her concerns.

Yamile Portuondo, 45, a social worker, has a daughter working as a laboratory assistant in Venezuela, where students again clashed with security forces on Thursday when about 200 demonstrators tried to block a highway in Caracas. Security forces responded with tear gas.

Students and the opposition have hit the streets of the capital and other cities denouncing rampant street crime and protesting over shortages of basic goods and inflation, as well as against the government's crackdown on demonstrators.

"Nothing will happen and Maduro will get the situation under control," said Portuondo confidently.

Some see the Venezuela unrest as a sign of hope, however.

Yoani Sanchez is a prominent Cuban opposition blogger.

Thanks to Venezuelan Telesur television, she says, widely broadcast in Cuba since last year, Cubans have finally been able to hear the voice of Venezuela's defiant opposition.

It is not clear why Cuba has allowed the channel to be broadcast there.

"For the first time Cuba has heard the Venezuelan opposition thanks to Telesur. Bravo!" tweeted Sanchez, 37.

"Will we one day hear the Cuban opposition too?"