CHAVEZ, CANCER, AND CUBA
Posted by Jon Lee Anderson
These are traumatic times for Venezuela‚Äôs President Hugo Chavez, who recently revealed that he was suffering from an unspecified form of cancer. Last week, Chavez asked his National Assembly for permission to return to Cuba, where he spent most of June, for chemotherapy treatment. It was there that his illness was first diagnosed and he underwent an operation that removed a tumor ‚Äúthe size of a baseball as Chvez described it, from his pelvic area. Chavez was upbeat, saying he was ‚Äúloving life‚Äù as never before. Yesterday, a smiling Raul Castro was shown on television greeting Ch√°vez warmly at Havana‚Äôs airport.
Chvez's decision to go to Cuba for his medical treatment‚Äîand to continue ruling Venezuela from there, in characteristic defiance of his domestic political critics‚Äîcaps a long public love affair between the extroverted Venezuelan, who assumed power in 1999, and his proclaimed political mentor, Fidel Castro. So great is Ch√°vez‚Äôs admiration for Fidel, and for his go-it-alone example in a hemisphere traditionally dominated by the United States, that Chavez has ruminated aloud about an eventual merger of the two allied states into one called Venecuba.
Chavez has also made a barter arrangement in which Cuba, a country generally strapped for energy, receives Venezuela‚Äôs oil in exchange for the expertise of tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, and athletic instructors. In a neat irony that is not lost on Chavez, the U.S. continues to buy the bulk of Venezuela‚Äôs oil, essentially subsidizing his largesse to the longtime American foes in Havana.
But Chaves attachment to Fidel and to his brother Ra√∫l (who now runs the island as President following Fidel‚Äôs retirement, in 2008) is something emotional, too, deeper than mere politics. Some of the Ch√°vez children have spent extended periods in Cuba living and studying, and his older brother, Adan, was for years his personal ambassador there. Chavez himself has travelled to Cuba scores, if not hundreds, of times during his thirteen years as Venezuela‚Äôs President, treating Cuba, in effect, as an offshore territory in a joint revolutionary enterprise in which, despite his bigger pocketbook, he has always seen himself as the junior partner.
In 2008, while reporting on Chavez for The New Yorker, I accompanied him on a twenty-four-hour visit to the Dominican Republic. We were boarding the presidential plane for the return flight to Caracas when Ch√°vez suddenly turned to his entourage and yelled excitedly: Let's go to Havana.‚Äù His aides sighed and rolled their eyes îit was a typically impulsive move by Chavez‚ but they were not unhappy.
We did go to Havana, and Raul Castro awaited us on the airport tarmac. (He had become President two weeks earlier, because of Fidel's own prolonged illness, diverticulitis, which nearly killed him.) After the greetings, Ch√°vez vanished with Raul and the rest of us did not see him until we were back on the jet the next day. He had been to visit the ailing Fidel, he informed us, beaming: Hes fine and send his best to all of you!‚Äù
In a way, there is already an informal Venecuba: the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA, economic bloc of states (Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines) that Chavez has helped sponser and subsidize. In his vaunted Bolivarian revolution, Chavez seeks to shift the region away from dependency on the United States by redefining Venezuela‚ and ultimately Latin America political economy through fraternal ties and new, socialist forms of barter trade and other exchanges with like-minded governments. Though not all of them are as closely allied as the ALBA countries, there are now left-of-center governments in power in a majority of Latin American states, including Brazil (which poses a hugely successful, competitive countermodel to Chvez). That this trend has come about at all is due in large measure to Chaves influence and oil-boom-fuelled economic subsidies‚Äîand to his Cuban ties, too‚Äîat a time of markedly waning U.S. power in the region.
If it transpires that Chavez has to spend another six months shuttling between Havana and Caracas for his treatment (as his Vice-President Elias Juau suggested recently) having also continued to administer Venezuela affairs from there, it will be yet another remarkable threshold he's crossed. Chavez is already Latin America's ultimate comeback kid, a former army paratrooper who won Venezuela's presidency in 1998 in a landslide after being amnestied and released from prison for a failed armed rebellion. That revolt of Chavez‚ in 1992, took place nearly forty years after Fidel Castro began his own revolution in Cuba with an armed raid against the eastern Moncada army barracks. It was an attack in which most of Fidel‚Äôs followers were gunned down, and for which he was imprisoned, only to be released two years later in an ill-advised amnesty granted by his country‚Äôs dictator, Fulgencio Batista. When Fidel left prison, in 1955, he made his way to Mexico to organize another rebel army. That one, of course, was ultimately successful.
Upon his own release from prison, in 1994, the first thing Chavez did was to fly to Cuba. He was hoping to meet his hero Fidel so as to seek his guidance about his political future. To Chavez‚Äôs great surprise, when he landed in Havana, Fidel was waiting for him at the airport.
Photograph: Raul Castro greets Chavez at the Havana airport, March 10, 2011. Prensa Presidencial - Miraflores.
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