Castro Fuels Rumors of a Chávez Death Watch

David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chavez's rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.


Rumors are flying in Venezuela that Hugo Chávez is on his death bed – fighting a respiratory infection in a Havana oncology ward that, according to official statements, developed after his fourth cancer surgery. Now, Fidel Castro is fueling rumors of a death watch with an open letter to Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro.

It has the tone of a funeral eulogy.

Sent by Castro on New Year’s Day, the 350-word letter also was published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. Castro, a mentor to Chávez over the years, recalls his first meeting with Venezuela’s strongman in Havana in 1994; this was not long after Chávez, then a cashiered Army paratrooper, was released from prison for leading an aborted military coup in 1992. Castro details his revolutionary struggles with Chávez and – most tellingly – observes that “however painful (Chávez’s) absence, all of you will be capable of continuing his work.” Cuba has been a recipient of Venezuela’s oil and economic largesse; it has many agents in Venezuela helping Chávez’s security services.

The impetus for the letter, as Castro explained at the onset, was to mark the eighth anniversary for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, currently an eight-member political and economic group that includes countries from Latin America and the Caribbean. An alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, it was put forth by Chávez to counter U.S. dominance in the region.

Recalling the first time he met Chávez, Castro wrote:

I met Hugo Chávez exactly 18 years ago. Someone invited him to Cuba and he accepted the invitation. He told me that he was thinking of asking for an interview with me. I was far from imagining that those soldiers branded as coup plotters by the news agencies, who sowed their ideas with so much discretion for years, were a select group of Bolivarian revolutionaries. I waited for Chávez at the airport, took him to where he was staying and talked with him for hours, exchanging ideas.

The following day, in the University of Havana’s Aula Magna, each one of us expressed our ideas.

(Readers can see Chávez’s speech, here. Although it’s in Spanish, two things surmount language barriers: Chávez’s telegenic presence and his aura of being a True Believer.)

Regarding Cuba’s close ties with Venezuela, Castro also mentioned Venezuela’s mudslide disaster in 1999 — and how Cuban physicians and medical aid were sent in response. “Our medical cooperation with Venezuela began as a result of the Vargas tragedy in which thousands of people died as a consequence of the abandonment and lack of foresight experienced by the poorest population of this state.”

It’s a fanciful narrative, to be sure, about what happened along the coastline of Vargas State, 20 miles north of Caracas. It ignores the truth: Chávez’s inept leadership and do-or-die political ambitions facilitated the deaths of 30,000 or more Venezuelans in the mudslide disaster. Most of the victims were poor.

Although not widely reported outside of Venezuela, Chávez and his advisers ignored the unusually heavy rains (and possibility of deadly mudslides and flooding), because they were determined to go ahead with a national referendum, on December 15, that was needed to adopt a new constitution. The constitution was a pivotal step in consolidating Chávez’s power – and enabled him to pack the Supreme Court with political cronies.

Despite the menacing rains, Chávez urged Venezuelans to go to the polls. No matter that emergencies were being declared and evacuations undertaken in neighboring states, including by Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza – a Chávez opponent – who had a reputation for good governance.

Writing at the excellent blog Venezuela News and Views, Jorge Arena provides a cogent time line of what in fact happened, explaining:

On December 15, 1999 the referendum process started despite the heavy rains. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez appeared on TV and asked the Venezuelan people to go massively to vote and to vote early. He said that nobody should be prevented to go to vote because of the rains. He reminded Venezuelans of the old sentence by Simon Bolivar “If Nature is against us; we will fight against her and make her obey.” Many centers could not open and many table witnesses could not be present because of the rain situation. Problems were reported in several states. Members of the church with the CNE directory prayed to God for the climate to improve. Evacuations started in the state of Falcon.

On December 16, 1999 the country realized the magnitude of the disaster. Vargas state was completely cut from the rest of the country. Some Constitutional Assembly members celebrated the referendum win but others, like (Aristóbulo) Isturiz, asked for restraint.

Explaining how Chávez put the Vargas disaster to good use, Arena added:

On December 24, 1999 the judges of the new Supreme Court, baptized “Tribunal Supremo de Justicia” (TSJ) were swore in. They were hand-picked by the so-called “Congresillo”, a subset of the Constitutional Assembly that had taken the role of the dissolved Congress. In the turmoil that followed the disaster, very few eyes were paying attention to this very important nomination. The smooth transition that was supposed to take place from the old to the new Constitutional rule did not take place given the state of emergency.

So, by the end of December 1999, Venezuela had a brand new Constitution and a brand new Supreme Court. Chávez had won the first round for the absolute control of the country. There were however tens of thousands deaths, a major economic disaster and entire areas of the country to be rebuilt. If the government had declared the State of emergency sooner, stopped the referendum and evacuated as quick as possible the affected areas thousands of lives could have been saved. They did not do it because they put their political agenda before the well being of the Venezuelan people.

To me, that is criminal negligence.

History will be the judge.

Interestingly, it was during the Vargas disaster that Chávez established his anti-American credentials – turning away U.S. Navy ships that were steaming to Venezuela with military engineers, physicians, and equipment — part of the international aid effort. They’d been invited by a senior military official in Chávez’s government. Ten years later, residents of Vargas still complained bitterly about Venezuela’s inadequate response to the natural disaster. Vargas remained a mess.

Although Chávez turned away the U.S. Navy ships, the U.S. nevertheless played a significant role in helping Venezuela – as Venezuelans clearly saw when U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters were carrying out rescue flights. Yet Chávez’s officials attempted to minimize the U.S. aid as was noted in a Washington Times article that I wrote as a Caracas-based correspondent.

How long will Chávez live? Venezuela’s government has treated his cancer as a state secret, releasing few details. But the little information that has been released suggests to some cancer specialists that Chávez (in light of four surgeries to the pelvic area, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy) is suffering from a sarcoma. “Patients who suffer from sarcoma tumors that are aggressive and incurable usually live between one to three years. If Mr. Chávez suffered from advanced sarcoma when he was diagnosed, he would be in the middle of that range right now,” the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out in an article,

“Outlook for Chávez darkens, doctors say.”

And in an observation that may surprise Michael Moore, that same article indicated that Chávez’s insistence on being treated in Cuba was a fatal mistake: Havana’s cancer center, after all, “isn’t considered among the elite anticancer or sarcoma centers, a handful of which are located in the U.S. and Europe, doctors say.”

Vice president Nicolás Maduro, a Chávez yes man, was a bus driver-turned union leader before getting into leftist politics. He lacks Chávez’s charisma and connection to Venezuela’s poor majority. Yet some political observers regard him as more pragmatic and flexible than Chávez – perhaps less likely, in other words, to put leftist ideology and anti-American hatred above the welfare of Venezuela’s people who, thanks to Chávez, are enduring record levels of crime, corruption, and food shortages.

If Chávez dies or steps down, presidential elections will be held in 30 days. Even if an opposition candidate wins, Venezuela will not recover anytime soon from 14 years of Hugo Chávez.

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  • Mary Sue

    It's hard for any country to recover from communism.

  • andy

    Chavez is a true dictator idiot. Good riddance-

  • Omar

    So-called U.S. "dominance" in the region are actually efforts to bring democracy, freedom and stability to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. If there is any dominant forces in the Western Hemisphere, it started with the Castro regime in the latter half of the 20th Century. During that time (and even today), the Castro dictatorship has tried to violently overthrow existing governments in the Western Hemisphere and replace those governments with Communist client states aligned with the Soviet Eastern Bloc. Today, the Castro regime in Cuba, the Chavez autocracy in Venezuela and their allies in ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) are the ones trying to destabilize the region. ALBA is indeed the modern-day Spanish Armada. Just like the Spanish Armada of King Philip II of Spain tried to conquer and transform the Kingdom of England into a Catholic country in 1588, ALBA is trying to conquer and transform the United States and other Western Hemisphere countries into Communist totalitarian countries. For the record, Fidel Castro=King Philip II. Anyway, ALBA has been destabilizing governments in the Western Hemisphere by funding opponents of democratic governments of countries and territories of the Western Hemisphere. In Puerto Rico (which is a U.S. territory), the Castro regime, the Chavez autocracy and their allies in ALBA have supported and financed the Communist and far-left separatist movement and other leftist opposition groups in the island territory. Because all of the support and finance (along with lies and propaganda against the government of Puerto Rico), the left-wing opposition was able to topple the democratically elected, pro-statehood conservative New Progressive Party government of Luis Fortuno this past November 6th. The left was able to topple Fortuno by resorting to the ugliest propaganda (and voting fraud) against his conservative government. The left's war against Puerto Rico didn't start with trying to topple Fortuno. That war started throughout the 20th century, but the conflict intensified after Castro's so-called "Cuban Revolution" in Cuba in 1959. For decades, the Castro dictatorship in Cuba has tried repeatedly to force the island of Puerto Rico to secede from the United States in order to transform the island into a Communist totalitarian regime allied with Cuba, the Soviet Union and other despotic Communist totalitarian regimes despite the fact that a majority of Puerto Ricans do not want secession. In fact, the majority of the people in Puerto Rico want either statehood (becoming the 51st state, which I support, along with more than half of the island's population) or remaining a territory (called "Commonwealth"). It is time that ALBA stops intervening in other places. It is also time for countries with despotic regimes to get rid of those regimes and democratize. Long live democracy! Down with ALBA!

  • Antisharia

    Let's hope he dies real slow and paunful.

  • STEVE CHAVEZ

    The only tears that will be shed will be by Americans and those Chavez bribed to vote for him. Obama learned alot from Chavez.

    Imagine the tears when Castro dies. It reminds of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws water on the Wicked Witch of the West (Castro and Nancy Pelosi) and she thinks all the guards will be mad at her when the Witch melts away, but instead, they celebrate. I bet even Obama, against a decades old policy against Castro, will have good things to say about him. Jimmy Carter and the Congressional Black Caucus will be there to send him to Hell where he will see other Americans like Ted Kennedy and others will be bribing people there too to become the Devil.

    Without support from OUR COMMUNISTS, LIKE THE CPUSA, these countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, and the other FIVE in the coalition, would fail and probably will when the Chavez dollars, and oil, stop.

    When Soviet leaders were dead, it took three days to announce it and with this letter from Castro, IT LOOKS LIKE IT'S ONLY A MATTER OF HOURS THAT CHAVEZ, NO RELATION, DIES! It starting to be a great year already!!!!

    • "gunner"

      not to worry steve, we're not about to blame you for hugo, and i hope someone steals the pennies from his eyes before they bury him. leaving him with no fare for the ferryman, charon does not take i.o.u.s or credit cards to cross his river.

  • NAHALKIDES

    Let's hope that the opposition wins after Chavez dies and begins to turn the country back toward freedom.

  • Joe Gilmore

    Spending time in Caracas, one can see that at one point Venezuela was on par with the US in quality of life. The beautiful parks and infrastructure (now crumbling, the Zoo and main park are perfect examples of the disrepair). The barrios (hundreds of thousands of people and shacks) on the hillsides of Caracas are a shameful reminder that El Comandante has successfully lied to the poor and are also the breeding grounds for fire, public health problems, and crime. The country has recently mortgaged away its oil wealth all the way to 2031 and the national inflation rate is over 30%. Business loans are as high as 70% APR (no kidding!) That said, I am actually torn between the opposition taking over now and allowing the Chavez experiment to continue. If the Chavez failed policies aren't allowed to continue to their inevitable albeit long drawn out horrific natural conclusion, there is a real possibility that the opposition could find themselves being blamed for the mess and incompetence of the last 12 ± years that they will have to clean up. The poor in Venezuela are that gullible. From the outside, it's easy to see the pain that will have to be suffered by all to get Venezuela back to "first world" status. From the inside as a barrio dweller, not so easy. They've been fed crap and told it was prime rib for so long that they're now cooking it medium rare and eating it for Sunday dinner. Like Joe Kennedy said in the United States, it's not who you are that matters [to the rabble], it's the perception of who you are that matters." There is no easy way back for them. The only suggestions I can make is focus LOTS of money towards education in the barrios and free unhindered Internet access at every public access place and government facility in the barrios. Let them see and dream with their own eyes.

    • Jenna

      Well said Joe. I live and have spent the past 2 years working in a children´s home in Caracas, and I could not have said it better. The reprocutions of Chavez´ time in office will be felt and seen for year to come. Let´s just pray that education becomes a main focus in the barrios and to the poor, and they may not believe all the lies they are constantly fed- Thanks for your insight.

  • jacob

    If there is somebody whose remnants should be exhumed, burned and for his ashes to get mixed with
    pig excrement at pig's stays, are those of Dr. RAFAEL CALDERA, the Social Christian founder, leader
    and later on, divider of his political party COPEI who, as CHAVEZ godfather, was influential in not only
    his graduation from the Military Academy (although among the last ones) and his promotions all the
    way to Lt. Colonel and, after being sentenced and incarcerated because of his 1992 bloody coup, was
    pardoned and freed with all his accomplices by his Godfather and the Venezuelan people, tired
    perhaps of 40 years of democracy, believed in his mermaid songs and allowed the introduction of his
    Communist Trojan Horse in Venezuela….
    Since then, he has been steering the country towards what he calls "Socialism of the XXI Century" and
    so far, has been able to practically turn it into Cuba's 15th Province, all key government positions held
    by Cubans and the armed services commanded in practice by Cuban officers and Cuban troops at
    key places in the country….
    Therefore, for all those idiots and beneficiaries of his largesse to call "President" , he might be so
    because the scum he taught how to live without working, votes for him and if not, then he controls the
    Board of Elections, CHAVEZ is a MUGABE kind of dictator, not more and not less, perhaps more, as
    he has been squandering the country's income like it would be his back pocket and managed the
    country like it would be his own ranch….
    If he croaks, that is, if he isn't already dead as with such regimes, no one but the "NOMENKLATURA"
    is the one that knows and sometimes not even they do, CASTRO will not let go of this morsel he has
    been trying to capture since 1960, proof of it the always on medical leave bus driver who is now the
    "Vice-President" appointed by CASTRO's "suggestion"….
    We can rest assured that after CHAVEZ's demise, what will happen in Venezuela might be a replay of
    what happened after Alexander's death …..

  • jacob

    THANK YOU…!!!!!!

  • Ruthlessma

    Make the day of his death a holiday.

  • Mary Sue

    Oh man let this not be a big fat "punk'd" stunt by Castro…

  • Ghostwriter

    Right now,a lot of Venezuelans,both there and in the U.S. are probably praying for Chavez's death. I'm not particularly fond of him myself. He's an arrogant,paranoid creep who believes he's been the greatest thing for Venezuela. Many in Venezuela would probably beg to differ with that assessment.

  • UCSPanther

    Hurry up and die Chavez: The Devil needs a new brakeman for his train…

  • Bright Knight

    If the world is freed from this scumbag 2 others will raise…unfortunately
    That doesn't mean that I'm sad when he's dead….

  • Sound&Fury

    The sooner they pull the plug, the sooner we'll be able to pop the cork.

  • Grouchy Old Man

    Beware Chavez opposition. This is an old and tried and true trick to flush out enemies of the Party. Just rumor the demise of the Communist in power and watch for the opposition activity to increase. Happened a couple of times in the USSR. Each time the opposition moved prematurely and were rounded up and shot.

  • karrah

    If you think Carolyn`s story is super…, last pay-check my moms best friend also brought home $8521 grafting a 20 hour week from there house and the're classmate's step-sister`s neighbour has done this for five months and actually earned more than $8521 in their spare time from a laptop. applie the steps at this address………. Bit40.ℂOℳ

  • IsraelgiftfromG-d

    Chavez has G-d's answer to his bastardry. If chavez has a soul, G-d will discard it, being of no further use to His plan.