CARACAS, Venezuela — It’s become a well-worn routine here: A news flash about President Hugo Chavez’s battle with cancer is issued, invariably delivered with great fanfare but scant details.
But what is increasingly troubling Venezuelans is not just the lack of candor that envelops the president’s condition, but that the news just as often comes from Cuba as it does from government ministries in Caracas. To protest what they call Cuban meddling, university students have chained themselves together in front of the Cuban embassy, and a growing chorus of opposition leaders charge that the Cuban government is calling the shots when it comes to Chavez’s health care.
Amid rising tensions over the state’s secrecy, the government issued pictures of Chavez last week, the first time he had been seen publicly in 67 days. In the photos, Chavez is smiling and holding up a copy of Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, from a hospital bed in Cuba.
And just a few days before, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro — whom Chavez has called a father figure and a saint — offered more details than Venezuelan officials had by reporting that he received updates on the Venezuelan leader’s health “every day” and that Cuba’s most famous patient “is recovering.”
“Ironically, Fidel Castro knows more about our president than the Venezuelans do,” quipped Federica Romer, 19, a university student who has been among those protesting outside the embassy.
For some here, it is a sign that the small, poor island nation has an outsized role in Venezuelan affairs. It’s a role that seems to have grown since June 2011, when Chavez, speaking on national television from Havana, first revealed that he had undergone surgery on the island to remove a tumor.
“I have to tell you that my indignation grows every day,” said Adicea Castillo, 75, an economist who helped topple Venezuela’s last dictatorship in 1958 and said she was once supportive of Fidel Castro. “It’s outrageous to see a government and a president so beholden in this way to Cuba.”
Cuba’s influence on Venezuela is well known here. Over Chavez’s 14 years in power, Cuba has sent sports trainers and doctors to Venezuela’s poor barrios and provided intelligence agents to this country’s military. Venezuela has reciprocated with 100,000 barrels of oil a day at cut-rate prices, an economic lifeline that analysts say has helped keep the Castro regime afloat.
Chavez’s government has also worked tirelessly for Cuba to be accepted by other Latin American countries, an effort that paid off last month when President Raul Castro assumed the presidency of a 14-month-old regional bloc called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
But Chavez’s cancer has drawn the two countries even closer, with the president spending more and more time in Havana as doctors grapple with a tumor that appears to have fended off four surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Indeed, Chavez was last seen in Venezuela on Dec. 10, when he boarded an early-morning flight to Havana. He missed his Jan. 10 swearing-in for a fourth term and, until photographs of him were released Friday, no one aside from a small cabal of aides and family members knew for sure whether he was even alive.
What Venezuelans do know is that the country’s top leaders have taken to flying constantly to Cuba to meet with Chavez. Those associates say Chavez has provided them with detailed instructions on running the state.
But critics say that Chavez has been in no condition to govern and that Cuba’s government is helping plot Venezuela’s course.
“What’s happening in Venezuela has no precedent in our history,” said Maria Corina Machado, an outspoken anti-Chavez lawmaker. “For the first time in 200 years of republican history, the decisions regarding the destiny of our country are being taken abroad.”
Such accusations have angered Venezuelan officials, who call the relationship with Cuba “a brotherhood” based on mutual respect.
But the government’s annoyance at the criticism has done little to curb growing resentment among some Venezuelans.
In recent days, university students have chained themselves outside the Cuban embassy, which has drawn other protesters angry about Chavez’s long sojourn in Havana. With a phalanx of National Guard troops protecting the embassy, the students have been sleeping on cushions and blankets in the middle of the street.
They say they won’t leave until they have clear answers about the president’s health.
For the protesters, the photographs issued by Chavez’s aides proved nothing. They noted that the government still has not said what kind of cancer Chavez has nor revealed details about his prognosis or whether he will even return to Caracas.
“We Venezuelans are living a great uncertainty, really, because we don’t know the truth,” said Gustavo Frias, 23, who spent the weekend at the embassy with other students. “We don’t know how the president is, if he’s fine, if he’s alive, if he’s dead. The truth is what we want to know.”
Emilia Diaz-Struck contributed to this report.