By Valeria Pacheco
Has Venezuela’s capital – and decision-making process – moved to Havana?
For all practical purposes, and insultingly to Venezuelans, the answer is yes, say parties opposed to President Hugo Chávez, who underwent cancer surgery a month ago in Cuba’s capital and remains there, recovering.
What is worse, these parties say, Venezuela is not only being run from Havana – the vice president and several ministers went there, again, last weekend – but rather it’s all happening under the influence of President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel.
“The Venezuelan government moves to Havana to make decisions, and not with the president, because evidently he is in no condition to take part in those meetings, but with the Castro brothers,” said Leopoldo López, leader of an opposition party included in a coalition whose Spanish acronym is MUD.
“For us, this is interference, and a lack of respect for our national sovereignty,” López said in an interview with local media.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who is Chávez’s handpicked political heir, and other senior officials including congressional speaker Diosdado Cabello, returned from Havana Monday night, ending the latest in a series of visits there. They saw Chávez and met with the Castros.
Henrique Capriles, Venezuela’s main opposition leader, also complained that “decisions that affect Venezuelans’ political and everyday life” have now been placed in the hands of senior Cuban officials.
Chávez, now 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011 and since then has undergone surgery four times, plus chemo and radiation treatment, in Havana.
From the outset of the saga the opposition has criticized him as effectively running his country from Cuba.
Capriles, whom Chávez defeated in October presidential elections, accused Chávez of governing from Cuba via Twitter – Chávez loves the social network, and has even used it to issue decrees – calling this practice “an insult to the nation.”
Chávez, a firebrand leftist, has been very close to Fidel Castro since coming to power in 1999. Since 2000, Venezuela has provided economically strapped Cuba with 130,000 barrels a day of cheap oil, and in exchange Cuba supplies Venezuela with doctors, social workers and other skilled workers.
The government flat-out denies that with Chávez ailing in Havana, Venezuela is being run by Cuba.
“There are those who say we are a colony of Cuba. That is offensive to Cuba and to Venezuela,” Maduro said Tuesday.
The campaign chief of Venezuela’s ruling socialist party, Jorge Rodríguez, insisted Monday that Chávez is conscious and can speak, and there is nothing wrong with senior Venezuelan government officials going to Havana to get “instructions from their commander in chief.”
Political analyst Farith Fraija argued that, “if the government is making decisions outside the country, it does not wrest legitimacy from those who are making the decisions.”
But Ángel Álvarez, another political scientist, insisted that under the constitution, the seat of power is in Caracas, and Chávez has violated this clause systematically by signing decrees in Havana.
The Venezuelan opposition has always slammed what it feels is Cuban interference in Venezuela’s business and even the presence of Cuban military people in the Venezuelan armed forces, as denounced by a general, Antonio Rivera, when he retired in 2010.
It has also complained about Chávez receiving cancer treatment almost exclusively in Havana, saying Venezuela has top-level oncologists, too.
Álvarez said Chávez went to Havana because it was the only way to cloak his medical condition in absolute secrecy. The Venezuelan government has provided a bare minimum of information on Chávez’s medical odyssey and not even specified where in his body the former paratrooper has cancer.
The last official update says Chávez is progressing as he fights respiratory trouble stemming from an infection he caught after the surgery.
He was supposed to have been sworn in for a third six-year term Jan. 10, but Congress has delayed the inauguration in a move upheld by the Supreme Court.
So, what’s the capital of Venezuela? Havana?
Valeria Pacheco is an Agence France Presse reporter based in Caracas, Venezuela.