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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