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Venezuela's 29 million people are praying for their ailing Commandante Hugo Chavez — half that he will survive his latest bout of cancer, and the other half that he won't.
The flamboyant Chavez is reporting to be failing rapidly with "severe" respiratory complications after his fourth cancer surgery since 2011 in Cuba. Both the Venezuelan and Cuban governments have remained very secretive about the condition of the 58-year-old Chavez.
Watching any human battle the terrors of cancer is always heartbreaking. But Chavez's prolonged illness is also causing rising economic and political uncertainty in both Venezuela and Cuba.
President Chavez styles himself leader of Latin America's socialist "Bolivarian revolution," an ex-military officers who vows to use Venezuela's great oil wealth to uplift his people. Venezuela's per capita income is a modest $13,000. By comparison, South Korea, a nation with no natural resources, has a GDP per capita of $30,000. Many Venezuelans subsist on $2 per day. They are Chavez's most ardent supporters.
The dire illness that has afflicted Chavez has thrown Venezuela into political turmoil. He was due to take the oath of office for a second six-year term on 10 January.
Venezuela's constitution provides for new elections if the sitting president dies. But there is confusion over what would happen if Chavez remains in a Cuban hospital. Will Vice President Nicolas Maduro take office — or not? The president of the National Assembly says he will assume office. Military officers are making coup noises.
All this would be merely of local interest if Venezuela was not one of the world's most important oil producers. Lucky Venezuela literally floats atop of sea of oil and natural gas. It may even have larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.
Venezuela's petroleum reserves from the region of Lake Maracaibo are estimated at nearly 300 billion barrels. Oil sands contain some 100 billion bbls of oil — more than Canada's Alberta oil sands. Venezuela is the world's eighth largest exporter of oil and Latin America's leading producer of natural gas.
In spite of the long, bitter feud and name-calling between Caracas and Washington, Venezuela remains a primary oil supplier for the United States. Caracas even owns the US petroleum refiner and marketer, "Citgo." Ironically, another leftist state, Angola, is also now a leading oil supplier for the energy-devouring US market.
Cuba's leaders are also watching President Chavez's health crisis with mounting concern. Venezuela supplies Cuba with an annual $3.5 billion subsidy, including 15,000 bbls of oil daily. Venezuela is also building a large refinery in Cuba that will strengthen its economic independence. In exchange for oil, Cuba has provided Venezuela with 30,000 doctors.
The Soviet Union used to supply Communist Cuba with free oil until its collapse in 1991. Cuba wholly relied on this Soviet petroleum and sold the rest to earn hard currency. Commandante Chavez has always been a huge admirer of Cuba; he regards Fidel Castro as a father figure. So he was quick to throw a lifeline to sinking Cuba after Soviet aid evaporated. Washington was furious, to say the least, and sought to bolster internal opposition to Chavez's populist socialist regime which is despised by middle and upper class Venezuelans
If Chavez loses his fight with cancer — and this could come in days — or if he is incapacitated, a new government in Venezuela may either sharply lessen or, if the rightist opposition wins office, completely end aid to Cuba. This would leave Cuba in desperate straits. Cuba does not have enough hard currency to buy oil on the open market.
Havana's plight might offer Vladimir Putin off in Moscow a nifty way of needling Washington, which has lately been stepping on Russia's toes in the Caucasus and Syria. China may also be tempted to quietly rescue Cuba as a tool for future use if the US challenges Beijing over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Imagine the uproar in America if Chinese Navy vessels began patrolling off Miami just as the US 7th Fleet patrols the Taiwan Strait.
This column wishes Col. Chavez a speedy recovery. He is a big pain to Washington, a mixed-up socialist, and a blowhard, but he's also colorful, big-hearted and amusing in a world full of dull leaders.