Chavez retains secrecy over cancer therapy in Cuba

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Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez kisses a Venezuelan flag after greeting supporters at a balcony of Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 4, 2011. Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba on Monday morning, stepping off a plane hours before dawn and saying he is feeling better as he recovers from surgery that removed a cancerous tumor.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — In his monthlong fight against cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has placed utmost importance on secrecy, carefully offering only scraps of information about his condition.

Now, as he begins planned chemotherapy in Cuba, Chavez appears to have found the perfect place where he can tightly guard details of his illness and keep the prying eyes of the news media far away.

The Venezuelan leader first underwent surgery in the island nation on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region. He returned Saturday night, saying he would be starting a “second phase of treatment.”

Typical of the cone of silence Chavez has lowered over his health problems, he hasn’t said how long the chemotherapy is likely to last, and there was no immediate confirmation from either Cuba or Venezuela that the treatments had in fact begun.

Chavez, 56, had said he would begin the treatments in Havana on Sunday to ensure cancer cells don’t reappear. He has also said he has been open about the details of his medical condition.

Maria Teresa Romero, professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela, said controlling information about his illness is important for Chavez to maintain both his hold on power and an image of strength at home.

“The secrecy, the trust is assured [in Cuba],” she said, “which is something that wouldn’t be assured if he were treated in Brazil, for example, or here in Venezuela. It would be much more difficult to keep secret everything they are going to do him.”

Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba from 2001 to 2004, said Chavez is likely receiving the same sort of protections and accommodations that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself would expect. Hare was also the deputy head of mission for the British Diplomatic Service in Venezuela from 1994 to 1997.

“Everything there will be arranged as if a member of the Castro family were being treated — strict secrecy, encrypted communication with Venezuela, transport, etcetera, just as if a favorite son had returned,” Hare said.

“Just as there is no accountability for the subsidies that Venezuela provides Cuba, the political relationship is based on shared commitments and understandings between the leaders that are never subjected to institutional scrutiny.”

On top of that, Hare said, “non-Cuban specialists could be more easily flown in to Havana than in the countries with a free and inquiring media.”

When Fidel Castro himself was gravely ill in 2006, a Spanish surgeon, not a Cuban, treated him.

One of the few messages that emerged from Chavez by early afternoon Sunday came via his Twitter account, where one of three notes offered congratulations for the start of the ALBA Games in Venezuela, an athletic competition involving countries in the left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance bloc.

“From my trench, battling for life, I congratulate the entire homeland for the marvelous inauguration of the ALBA Games! We will live!” the message said.

Chavez has been treated by a team of Cuban and Venezuelan doctors since doctors removed a cancerous tumor that Chavez said was the size of a baseball. He hasn’t said what type of cancer he was diagnosed with nor specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.

Government officials have deferred to Chavez to provide the information he chooses about his prognosis, while opposition leaders have demanded that the president come clean about what exactly his medical condition is. Three days before he left for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged for the first time that he expected to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Chavez conceals treatment in Cuba