Venezuela's Chavez reportedly convalescing in secrecy at Cuba hospital famed for security

Associated Press

HAVANA - It's a blocky, blush-colored building surrounded by a lush canopy of trees near the rumoured home of Cuban revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.

Somewhere inside, as best as can be determined, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is fighting for his life.

People in Venezuela and other parts of the world await word on the fate of a man who once called George W. Bush "the devil" in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, yet there are no journalists camped out on the sidewalk. Nobody gets past a police guard without proof of official business inside. Signs on surrounding streets warn that taking photographs is forbidden.

CIMEQ hospital's well-earned reputation for guaranteeing the privacy of its elite clientele makes it the perfect place for the Venezuelan leader, who is bent on maintaining a large degree of secrecy about his battle against a cancer somewhere in the pelvic region. Venezuelan government officials have released few details on the cancer since it was first discovered in June 2011, and they've been no more forthcoming during his latest stay for a fourth surgery, on Dec. 11.

"What Chavez gets there (at CIMEQ) is a lot of privacy," said Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a Virginia-based analyst and the author of "The Health Revolution in Cuba." ''They have been pretty good at protecting the private affairs of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, and now we see they're doing the same with Chavez."

CIMEQ, a Spanish-language acronym for Center for Medical and Surgical Research, is operated jointly by Cuban civilian and military authorities and is considered the crown jewel of the island's health care system. Opened in 1982 in western Havana, it was the first to use CAT scan technology in Cuba, and is reputedly at the vanguard of marrow, liver and kidney transplants.

Communist-run Cuba is legendary for being able to keep a secret, and CIMEQ sits in an upscale Havana neighbourhood where security is especially tight. The area crawls with police and guards even on a normal day, and high walls shield pre-revolution mansions that today house embassies, diplomats, visiting dignitaries and top officials. Just up the road is a convention centre where Colombia and its largest rebel group are holding supersensitive peace talks behind closed doors.

CIMEQ serves ordinary Cubans for free under the island's public health system, but it's renowned as the go-to place for A-listers, from famed 91-year-old ballerina Alicia Alonso to the late boxing great Teofilo Stevenson. High-profile visitors such as Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia have also availed themselves of CIMEQ's services.

Those who manage to get past the front gate walk past a parking lot, under an imposing overhang and through an ample front door to find leatherette-seated waiting areas and broad, labyrinthine corridors.

Even here there's practically no visual clue suggesting the presence of Chavez. A half-dozen CIMEQ patients consulted by The Associated Press said security seems normal and there's no sign of the Cuban secret service agents in guayabera shirts who guard President Raul Castro and famous visitors. However, on one recent day, several cars in the parking lot bore black diplomatic license plates identifying them as belonging to the Venezuelan Embassy.

"They've been saying for a while that Chavez is here, ever since he fell ill," said Barbara Ramirez, a 62-year-old Havana resident. "But I've been coming here for treatment for a long time and I don't see anything."

Chavez is believed to be housed in an entirely separate ward that is off-limits to all but a few — his doctors, family members and the highest-level officials. It is here that Chavez's friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, 86, was presumably treated for an intestinal ailment that nearly killed him and forced him into retirement seven years ago. As has been the case with Chavez, details of Castro's illness were closely guarded leaving rumour and speculation to rule the day.

It's a far cry from the scene outside hospitals in other places where the rich and famous undergo treatment.

Think of Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, favoured by Hollywood celebrities, where packs of paparazzi stalk the entrance snapping photos of movie stars who've given birth or survived an overdose.

Or the British royal family, which last year couldn't guarantee the privacy of the Duchess of Cambridge, still better known as Kate Middleton, when she was hospitalized for pregnancy complications. An Australian radio DJ duo called the hospital and, mimicking Queen Elizabeth II's warbling speech, pranked a nurse into revealing private details of her condition. A second nurse who patched the call through later died in an apparent suicide.

Chavez has not been seen or heard from since his operation, although his family members, Venezuelan officials and other Latin American leaders have visited the island to support him.

Cuban government officials have repeatedly declined to offer any information about Chavez's condition, saying they consider it a matter exclusively for the Venezuelans to handle as they see fit. Venezuelan Embassy employees say privately they are told nothing about the president's health other than the vague official statements released by Chavez's camp, not even to confirm where he's staying.

Chavez is no doubt grateful for the discretion, and by some accounts has responded generously.

A commonly repeated story is that after his first surgery 1 1/2 years ago, Chavez gave new cars to everyone responsible for his care, from the surgeons down to a maid who cleaned the room. The rumours were never confirmed, but the purported gifts are said to have inspired jealousy and infighting among hospital staff.

Some have questioned Chavez's decision to opt for Cuba instead of the cancer centre at Sao Paulo's Sirio-Libanes hospital, considered the top facility of its kind in Latin America. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff invited Chavez to seek treatment there when he was first diagnosed.

But in choosing Cuba, the Venezuelan leader got a guarantee of privacy while handing a public relations victory to communist leaders who tout health care achievements among the Cuban Revolution's great successes.

"There was a political message, too: the complete trust that Chavez put in Cuba and its public medical system," said Eduardo Bueno, a Latin American studies professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.


Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.


Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter:

View Comments (114)

Recommended for You

  • David Cassidy prepares to auction Florida mansion

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Like many of his baby boomer peers with grown children and debts to settle, one-time heartthrob David Cassidy is looking to downsize.

    Associated Press41 mins ago
  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Turkey onslaught on Kurds, after IS attack, fuels anger

    DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — Just when it seemed Turkey was getting serious about the fight against IS, it has turned its military focus to pounding its old foe: the Kurdish rebels.

    Associated Press35 mins ago
  • Play

    Body cam footage from Cincinnati shooting contradicts official story

    A University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder after body camera footage contradicted his official story outlining the events that led to the shooting death of unarmed Cincinnati driver Samuel Dubose.

    Reuters Videos
  • An American Dentist Killed Zimbabwe’s Famous Lion

    Cecil the lion, a famous black-maned resident of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, died at the hands of an American dentist, conservationists claim. “Mr. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn't kill him,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said in…
  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • China to prosecute former top officer for graft

    China will prosecute a former top military officer for corruption, the government said on Thursday, the second senior officer to be investigated, as President Xi Jinping widens his campaign against deep-rooted graft in the country. Guo Boxiong, 73, was a vice chairman of the powerful Central…

  • Killer deal: Amazon will pay you $10 to buy a $30 Google Chromecast

    Google’s little Chromecast dongle is pretty awesome. The device plugs into the HDMI port on any HDTV or monitor and instantly gives users access to movies, TV shows, videos, music, photos and more that can be streamed from any Android device. Best of all, perhaps, the Chromecast is wonderfully…

    BGR News
  • Play

    Custom truck built by father and son stolen in Lemoore

    A Lemoore man is on the hunt for his stolen pick-up truck. The classic custom ride holds significant sentiment to its owner, who built the truck with his late father.

    KFSN – Fresno
  • Goat's head nearly severed in brutal knife attack in Idaho

    A small goat was nearly decapitated and another goat died from a "heinous" knife attack on the animals in a fenced and locked site where they had been placed to graze on weeds in northern Idaho, a police spokeswoman said on Wednesday. A third goat is being treated for a knife wound in its back from…

  • Police Officer Involved in Deadly Cincinnati Shooting of Samuel DuBose Indicted for Murder, Dismissed from Force

    "I'm treating him like a murderer," prosecutor Joseph Deters said during a news conference when describing the warrant out for a police officer who killed Samuel DuBose, 43, earlier this month. Footage released today from a police officer's body cam lasts about 10 minutes and shows the shooting.…

    ABC News
  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.