The following piece by Sarah Rainsford in Havana has been translated by Free Venezuela staff from the BBC’s Spanish website.
Hugo Chávez is in a hospital just a few miles from my home. At least that’s what I think, when it comes to the health of Venezuela’s president, Cuban officials won’t confirm anything.
I wasn’t in Cuba when Chávez made his surprise announcement that he had suffered a relapse of his cancer, and that he was returning to Cuba for more surgery, but a week later I went to see the Cimeq Hospital.
Situated near Fidel Castro’s house and known to be where the leaders of Cuba go to be treated, it’s surrounded by Woods, fields and huges plastic greenhouses.
In most countries, if a head of state is gravely ill, there is always a mob of journalists to be found at the door of the hospital waiting for news, but outside the low rise structures of the hospital I only see two young soldiers in olive green uniforms. Chávez clearly chose Cuba for the discretion it provides him with, as well as its medical services.
The only news about comes from Venezuelan officials in bulletins straight from Caracas. From them we know that there were “moments of tension” after the operation, that Chávez lost a lot of blood and that he’s now recovering. But we still have no idea as to what kind of cancer he has or as to what his prognosis is.
The Cuban authorities have been even more circumspect: there’s been a declaration in parliament, a brief letter from his mentor Fidel Castro in “Granma”, the Communist Party’s newspaper and some warm words from Raúl Castro in an address to parliament, praising the Venezuelan leader’s courage.
But on the streets of Havana people do talk. 18 months have now passed since Castro first arrived on the island to be treated for cancer. Cubans are used to his presence and the constant expressions of “solidarity” with him on state radio.
But they also know that this time Chávez designated a successor before his trip and inspite of the official assurances about his recovery, they are worried.
“Chávez is hugely important for Cuba”, a woman tells me in the Plaza Vieja, “I don’t know what would happen here without him”.
“He’s been in power for 14 years and things have changed a lot here”, a younger man says to me. “I think he’ll recover, that’s what I hope, he’s done a lot for us”, he added.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades and the end of its enormous subsidies to its Caribbean ally, Venezuela has become a key ally of the Castro brothers with its financial support for the revolution.
Cuba imports two thirds of its oil from Venezuela. In exchange it has sent 40000 doctors to work there, as well as teachers and sports’ coaches. For the most part they work in district with the most severe levels of social deprivation.
But opposition leader Henrique Capriles made it in last October’s presidential election campaign that he wasn’t going to “ give away” more oil to the island.
This is what most worries Cubans about a world without Chávez, although when they say it they keep their voices down and won’t give their names.
“In the special period [Cuba’s economic collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union] we had power outages that lasted hours and hours”, recalls a cook who works in a state enterprise in Old Havana.
If Chávez doesn’t recover and return to the presidency he fears that those days of misery, shortages and hunger will return.
“What with the blockade [the US economic boycott of Cuba] he’s the only one who helps us”, says the cook, “Things are bad now, even with Chávez. But without him it would be a disaster”.
The economists are more optimistic and say that Cuba is much less dependent on Venezuela than it was on the Soviet Union. The economy is more diversifies and has a growing tourist sector. But trade with Cuba still represents more than a third of the island’s GDP, so it’s not surprising that Cubans are worried.
“We really hope he recovers”, continues the cook, “Not only for his own sake but for that of all of Cuba”.
But for the moment the real state of Chávez’s health is anyone’s guess and there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of Venezuela.