In the wee hours of Dec. 10, the recently reelected Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, boarded his private jet for Havana to undergo a fourth round of surgery in his battle against cancer.
Surrounded by his inner circle, the 58-year-old populist, donning a blue and white tracksuit, stood at the top of the stairs of his plane, embraced his closest advisers, then punched the air with his fist and shouted, "!Hasta la vida siempre!" ("Onward into life always!")
One day earlier Chavez conceded what many had surmised: that his cancer had returned. In June 2011 he had surgery in Havana to remove "a baseball-size tumor from his pelvis," but refused to disclose any other details.
From the start, the question has been why Chavez chose surgery and treatment in Cuba over Venezuela, which boasts many renowned cancer specialists. The deciding factor, it seems, was not superior medical care, but rather the guarantee of ironclad secrecy under the direct supervision of Chavez's mentor and closest friend, Fidel Castro. In Cuba, the health and all personal details about the Maximum Leader have long been treated as state secrets.
Castro is nothing if not a master strategist--fully aware that if the Venezuelan leader succumbs to illness, the peril to Cuba could be its gravest challenge since the loss of its patron after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. For starters, Chavez provides Cuba with an astounding 115,000 barrels of oil each day--gratis.
But Castro's interest in Chavez's health goes far beyond the political. Following Castro's own precipitous health calamities that led to his formal retirement, Chavez, who is almost 30 years Castro's junior and refers to him as mi padre, has been a frequent presence at his bedside. "Here with Fidel, celebrating his 85th birthday! Viva Fidel!" Chavez tweeted irrepressibly in August 2011.
The relationship between Castro and Chavez is arguably the most fascinating political alliance in the Americas. In 1994 Chavez flew to Havana to meet his political hero, who awaited him on the airport tarmac. It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship between the two men and two countries that Chavez has dubbed "Venecuba."
Since then the two iconic leaders have celebrated several of their birthdays together. For his 75th in 2001, Castro trooped to Caracas for a bash hosted by Chavez followed by a cruise through Venezuela's rainforests. It was a visit, said Chavez, that allowed "us an opportunity to let him know how much we love him."
And so it is that the two most infamous strongmen of Latin America, whose symbiosis has enabled their stranglehold on power for so many years, now find themselves being lifelines for one another as they battle death. What remains to be seen is which one--the Venezuelan oil sultan or the Cuban guerrilla revolutionary--will be the first to be summoned by the Grim Reaper.
This past summer, a lifelong Fidelista and former senior minister in the Cuban government was shooting the breeze with a well-known writer at the latter's Havana apartment. After a few drinks, the normally cautious former official surprised his host. Lowering his voice, he said, "No one expects Fidel to make it to December." And then with a roll of the eyes and a dry laugh, he added, "So of course, he'll make it to March!"
Confounding the actuarial tables and disappointing his enemies has long been Castro's favored sport. In October he triumphed once again, when the rumor mill reached an incendiary pitch after a Venezuelan reporter and a doctor in Florida both declared that Castro was either in a vegetative state or dead.
Cuba's powers that be decreed that something had to be done. It was decided that Castro's son Alex, a photographer and bon vivant of Havana's nightlife, would snap a few pictures. The photographs, showing an elderly Castro in a plaid shirt and straw sombrero supporting himself on a cane, swiftly stilled the obituary presses. …