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.

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

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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