Castro fuels rumors of a Chávez death watch

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 American 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.)

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, the designated successor, 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.