Havana (CNN)Less than a month after seizing power in 1959, Fidel Castro embarked on his first trip as leader to seek support for his revolution. The young rebel leader's destination wasn't Moscow or Washington, it was Caracas.
The history that chains Cuba to Venezuela's crisis
Venezuela's government had secretly supported Castro and his rebels with funds and weapons during their fight to oust US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Now a victorious Castro had a new request: Loan Cuba $300 million dollars worth of oil.
The oil shipments would be "a master trick on the gringos," Castro told then-Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt, breaking Cuba's economic dependence on the US. Not wanting to upset Washington, Betancourt frostily replied that if Castro wanted Venezuelan oil, he should buy it on the open market.
But Castro got what he wanted, in the end. Today, Venezuelan oil is the lifeblood of Cuban economy, under a barter system where Cuba receives billions of dollars of crude in exchange for Cuban doctors, teachers, sports trainers, and military and intelligence advisers. And now, as political unrest threatens the Maduro régime in Caracas, it also threatens to put the lights out in Havana.
Maduro's rival, Juan Guaidó, has vowed to end Cuban influence in Venezuela, and any change in government could upset the special relationship between the two countries. Shipments from Venezuela have become less frequent, and Cuba is hurrying to expand how much oil it can store. "Our calculation is Cuba has 5 million barrels of total primary storage," says Jorge Piñón, a Cuba energy expert at the University of Texas in Austin. "I am saying if Cuba has a crisis, Cuba has enough oil to last them 35 to 45 days."