Chavez health crisis has dependent Cubans on edge

Cuba was on edge as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez underwent more cancer surgery Tuesday, with many here worried that if he dies, deeply dependent Cuba will plunge into economic disarray.

"Venezuela today represents what the Soviet Union used to until 1990," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a dissident economist in Cuba, the Americas' only Communist-ruled one-party state.

"But the difference is that if aid were to end now, the consequences would be much worse since Cuba's infrastructure is in much worse shape now than it was back then," he warned.

Cuban authorities, Chavez's closest allies in the region, have not commented on the health of the man who for more than a decade has ensured Havana gets more than half of the oil it uses every day at a deeply subsidized rate.

"How could Cuba pay international market prices for these 100,000 barrels a day?" demanded Espinosa Chepe.

Much has changed in eastern Europe, Russia and China since the end of the Cold War, with economies opening up in varying degrees to market forces and foreign investment, driving impressive growth rates.

But Cuba, which two decades ago abruptly lost 85 percent of the foreign trade it largely conducted with its former socialist allies, still has a cash-strapped centrally-planned government-run economy.

The main difference now is that it has a new sponsor footing the bill.

When the Soviet Union came crumbling down, Cuba's economy hit a standstill as subsidized food, fuel and raw materials all suddenly stopped arriving -- while the island remained under the same US trade sanctions as before.

Cuba's government called it the "Special Period" and Cubans remember it as a time when food was in such short supply that hungry parents passed anything they could get on to their children.

In an often sweltering Caribbean nation of 11 million, blackouts became so much the norm that Cubans coined the phrase "Light-ons" to refer to periods when oil-powered plants were switched back on.

Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro -- now retired but then still president -- presided over what amounted to wartime crisis economy.

Fuel was rationed; food grown in the countryside was rotting there and not making it to cities; long lines snaked around blocks for public transport, and shortages of food, clothing and soap were common.

Some women shaved their heads in dismay when they had no shampoo or conditioner to care for it.

Though the government never officially declared the Special Period over, once Castro-ally Chavez had come to power in Venezuela in 1999, the Cuban economy edged towards stability.

President Raul Castro, who stepped in for his brother in 2006, has introduced minor reforms on self-employment and ownership.

But Cuba is isolated and cash-strapped, making ends meet with funds from Venezuelan aid, the "export" of government health workers to allied countries like Venezuela and from remittances from emigrants.

A Cuban worker's average wages are under 20 dollars a month.

"Even that (system of exported health workers) could be in danger now," said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua, noting that a successor to Chavez may well dedicate more resources to domestic crises.

"I think the average Cuban, whatever they think about politics, is feeling the potential loss of the bolstering of the Cuban regime that Venezuela does," he said.

"Cubans really do not want to go through the Special Period's really tough times again, with blackouts and all that."

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