Sunday, January 13, 2013

What Is Next For Cuba If Chavez Dies

As Hugo Chavez Fights For His Life, Cuba Fears For Its Future

Venezuela is not the only Latin American nation that is monitoring every moment of president Hugo Chavez's illness. His ally Cuba has relied on him for economic help, and that could soon come to an end.

Away from the constitutional wrangles and impassioned crowds of Caracas, the future of Venezuela after Hugo Chavez is being plotted this weekend in an elegant pre-revolutionary mansion in Havana's old playboy quarter.
The firebrand Venezuelan president is fighting for his life in a nearby hospital, stricken by severe respiratory problems and a lung infection after his latest round of surgery for cancer.
His illness left him unable to be sworn in for his fourth term as president last Thursday, having won a close-fought election in October.
But for his Cuban hosts, much more is at risk than simply the loss of a fellow left-wing Latin American radical who has long venerated Fidel Castro. His death would also put at risk the remarkable oil-fuelled largesse that has allowed Cuba to cling to its experiment in tropical communism.
Thanks to the close personal relationship between Mr Chavez and Mr Castro, energy-rich Venezuela supplies more than 100,000 barrels of dirt-cheap oil a day to Cuba - an estimated 50 per cent of the island's petroleum needs.
Venezuela also hires tens of thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers to work in its barrio slums, propping up the Cuban economy to the tune of some $6 billion a year in total. Without that subsidy, Havana would have long ago been forced to introduce market reforms to its communist regime.
Nothing has been heard or seen of Mr Chavez for more than a month and few expect him to recover - if indeed he is still alive. So it is little wonder that Cuba is desperate to exercise maximum control over his passing - and in particular manoeuvre a handover of power to Nicolas Maduro, his vice-president.
Mr Maduro, who arrived back in Havana on Friday night for fresh talks at the government-owned "protocol villa", shares Mr Chavez's absolute loyalty to Cuba. But there are others within the Venezuelan elite who are less convinced of the merits of subsidising Cuba with an economic lifeline at a time when inflation and debt are soaring in Venezuela itself, despite the country's oil wealth.

Also arriving in Havana on Friday to pay what might be their final respects to Mr Chavez were Cristina Kirchner, Argentina's populist president, and Peru's left-wing head-of-state Ollanta Humala, For months, Mr Maduro has been commuting in an unmarked government jet between Caracas and Havana, ferrying messages from the ailing president as well as liaising with the Cuban leader, Raul Castro, and his older brother Fidel.
Amid all the intrigue, Mr Chavez is being treated at the jewel in Cuba's health system, the Medical Surgical Research Centre (known by its Spanish acronym CIMEQ), the same hospital where Fidel Castro was treated for a near-fatal stomach condition after his collapse in 2006.
Chavez aides have given no update on his condition for more than a week, fuelling speculation that he is close to death. Unlike after previous surgeries, there have been no photos or videos since the mid-December operation, not even a phone call to state radio or television.
More than anything, it is this silence of the normally garrulous leader that indicates the seriousness of his condition.
The lack of specifics about Mr Chavez's health is not surprising for top-level patient in Havana. Mr Castro's own medical condition is treated as a state secret and and Mr Chavez's decision to undergo surgery in Havana meant that he could be assured near total privacy. What is known, though, is that he has undergone surgery four times as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy since his cancer diagnosis in mid-2011. That he chose to entrust his life to Cuba's medical system rather than his own is also regarded by many Venezuelans as a telling indictment of the state of health service in his own country.
Although President Chavez declared himself to be "cancer free" last year during a hard-fought election battle, it is believed that he was told from the start that the prognosis was grim.
And the Cuban connection may have further harmed his health last year when his Cuban mentors insisted that he return to the electoral fray in Venezuela, even when doctors would have preferred him to rest after previous surgery.
"The key to Cuba's influence lies in the visits made to Cuba by Chavez on a continuous basis, almost monthly," Gustavo Coronel, a Venezuelan opposition politician and oil industry executive, told The Sunday Telegraph.
"The number of these visits is in the hundreds over the years, starting in 2000 and becoming routine affairs as Chavez became dependent on Castro's advice.
"Chavez was hooked on Castro.
"It is Castro that convinced him to treat his ailments in Cuba. This would probably cost him his life, as it is now suspected that the procedures he underwent in Cuba did not include the best modern protocols."
Whether Mr Chavez lives or dies, and who succeeds him, matters as much to Cuba as Venezuela itself. Indeed, his health amounts to a vital economic statistic in Havana.
It would be a "disaster" for Venezuelan subsidies to dry up, according to Carmelo Mesa-Lago,a Cuban-born US economist. "If this help stops, industry is paralysed, transportation is paralysed and you'll see the effects in everything from electricity to sugar mills," he said.
Even as Chavez-directed funds have poured into Havana, Cuban advisors work in the very highest echelons of the Venezuelan executive. The president's elite security team is trained by Cubans, and the Venezuelan intelligence service is now run under a similar structure to Cuba's feared G2 Intelligence agency, itself based on former East Germany's Stasi network.
The mass marches which regularly take place in Venezuela, in which loyal supporters are encouraged to attend political rallies with the promise of free alchohol and transport, are indentkit copies of the revolutionary model perfected in Cuba under Fidel Castro.
It was the Castro brothers, experts in political longevity against the odds, who were instrumental in working out how "21st century socialism" in Venezuela, and in turn Venezuela's generous handouts to Cuba, could survive without Mr Chavez himself.
The doomsday scenario for Havana would be fresh elections in which the opposition triumphed. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph before the October vote, Henrique Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition leader who lost the presidential race to Mr Chavez last year, pledged that he would halt the "gifts" of free or heavily-subsidised oil ideological allies on day one in office.
But there is also danger for the Castro brothers within the Chavista camp if a more nationalist-minded faction was to prevail. The Cubans are particularly wary of Diosdado Cabello, a former army comrade of Mr Chavez who is now the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, who is thought to be rather cooler about the bilateral relationship.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, if Mr Chavez dies or is finally designated too sick to govern, then Mr Cabello would become caretaker president until new elections were called. So it was the Castros who persuaded Mr Chavez to leave his sick bed on Dec 9, travel to Caracas, and very publicly endorse Mr Maduro as his chosen successor.
Mr Chavez has not been seen since his return. It looks increasingly likely that his last public act was also his final political gift to his beloved mentors in Havana.

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