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The death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is being weighed by governments around the world today. We're about to hear two views from Cuba and from a former U.S. ambassador. For years, Cuba's feeble economy has been helped by Venezuelan oil shipments and subsidies.
The Castro government has declared three days of mourning, and Cubans are worried about the potential loss of billions in trade. Here's Nick Miroff in Havana.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: When he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Hugo Chavez turned to Fidel Castro and Cuba's doctors to save him. But the disease came back again and again. And when news of his death was announced by Cuba's state broadcasters Tuesday night, all of Havana seemed to go quiet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Long before Chavez was first elected president in 1998, Castro saw him as a protege. He sent doctors, teachers and military advisors to help Chavez consolidate power and, in turn, the Venezuelan president pulled Cuba out of the economic ditch left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The island came to depend on Venezuela for two-thirds of its oil imports and nearly half its foreign trade.
Among the tens of thousands of Cubans who went to work among Venezuela's poor was Alvaro Castellanos, a doctor standing on the sidewalk outside the Venezuelan embassy in Havana who came to pay his respects.
ALVARO CASTELLANOS: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: We gave them what we had, and in a way, they gave us what they had, said Castellanos, who spent six years working in Venezuela. More than anything, it was a family, a union, not just between Cuba and Venezuela but with all of Latin America, he said. Castellanos was among a handful of Cubans who arrived to the embassy, but Chavez's death brought no mass outpouring of emotion in Havana, unlike the scenes in Caracas.
The outcome of the presidential election in the next month will determine Chavez's successor and the future of relations with Cuba. A win by Chavez loyalist Nicolas Maduro would likely keep the oil flowing and the relationship tight. But a victory by Venezuela's opposition could auger a new austerity period for Cuba. Havana University student Eduardo Garcia said he didn't think the Venezuelan people would vote for that.
EDUARDO GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: I have faith that this is a process that doesn't depend on a single person, said Garcia. I trust that everything Chavez has done has taken root in the conscience of Venezuelans and they will continue to follow his path. To many in Venezuela and the U.S., Chavez was an autocrat and a megalomaniac who left his country divided and dysfunctional. But to many Cubans accustomed to harsher Castro rule, he looked a democratic figure and helped push their rigid government in a better direction.
After all, Chavez based his rule on democratic elections. He tolerated far more criticism from opponents and the press. And even among frustrated Cubans who saw his aid as a lifeline to the Castros, they knew it was Chavez who has kept the lights on and the air conditioners running. Havana resident Miriam Suarez sees nothing good coming from his death.
MIRIAM SUAREZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: A lot of people who don't know what poverty is like can't understand Chavez, Suarez said. Maybe now that he's gone there will be changes, and it'll be the poor who suffer, not the rich. Cuban state television has been playing mournful tributes to Chavez since his death, but Fidel and Raul Castro have been noticeably silent. The Cuban government issued a statement Tuesday night, but neither Castro has appeared in public nor offered a written farewell. For the elder Castro, now 86 years old and retired, Chavez's death is an especially personal loss. He has even outlived the man he carefully prepared to be his political heir. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.