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As Chavez's health teeters, uncertainty grips Venezuela
Despite the appearance Monday of the president, his weeks of ruling via Twitter while recovering from his latest cancer surgery have left some supporters wondering whether he will live through another six-year term.
The Washington Post
CARACAS, Venezuela — For more than three hours, he towered before the crowds in the city center — bombastic, fierce, funny, singing songs and promising that rigid socialism would upend the American-style capitalism he abhors.
But despite the appearance Monday of the president of old, Hugo Chávez's weeks of ruling via Twitter while recovering from his latest cancer surgery have left some supporters wondering whether he will live through another six-year term.
The fiery leader who survived a coup attempt a decade ago faces a threat that could end Latin America's most radical populist movement and remove an antagonist of the United States who has built ties with Syria, Iran and other despotic governments. His departure also could weaken Cuba, the region's only communist state, which is led by a gerontocracy heavily dependent on subsidized Venezuelan oil.
"We see him, and we know he is sick," said Evelyn Quevedo, a teacher who at 57 is the same age as the president. "Something is happening to the president, because if it weren't that way, he would be on television every day. This is not his style."
A year after Cuban doctors worked to remove a cancerous growth in a complicated surgery, a president who has run his country like a game-show host rarely is on the air and reveals only sketchy details about his condition.
Chávez's Sunday television program, "Hello, Mr. President," has been suspended for much of the year, and so have once-ubiquitous state tours of destinations as far away as Tehran that had been a staple of the state media apparatus.
In their place are smaller but intricately staged events: a brief meeting with officials from Belarus, a halting walk through the presidential palace, cameras panning Chávez head to toe to assure viewers he is still here and moving without assistance.
There are calls from El Comandante to state television programs, and his ministers have taken to reading his tweets at rallies, with the president issuing 140-character missives that substitute for his usual proclamations.
Chávez, though, says the swirling speculation about his health is the work of a diabolical counterrevolution intent on ousting him.
"They say that I cannot walk, that I walk with two walking sticks, that I have a wheelchair," Chávez said Monday in a packed square in central Caracas. "Soon, we'll be playing baseball."
His jowls and body looked swollen, and he walked gingerly, but Chávez used his oratory skills and cultlike status to try to erase doubts about his health.
Such pronouncements — affirmations that the end is far from near — are consumed like gospel by his closest associates, who reveal nothing more about an illness considered a state secret. Chávez, the only one authorized to speak publicly about his cancer, has revealed he has had three operations, as well as chemotherapy and radiation.
Asked whether Chávez could be sidelined by the recurring tumor, his campaign organizer, Jorge Rodríguez, quickly tried to dampen any hint that the president could be forced out of his race against 39-year-old challenger Henrique Capriles.
"Absolutely not," Rodríguez, who maintained a tense smile, said last week. "If you like, we'll see each other on Oct. 8 in the morning, and I'll confirm what I'm saying now: Chávez is going to give the candidate of the right a tremendous beating."
Oncologists who have been tracking Chávez's health — and are familiar with the treatments he describes — say he may be suffering from an aggressive tumor, possibly a sarcoma, that is resistant to chemotherapy.
"What that indicates to us is that the cancer has a relapse and that that cancer is very likely not a curable cancer," said Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic. "For these types of cancers, you know, the best chance is the first chance. That is when you have the best option to cure."
Little by little, in a way that is increasingly felt across Venezuela, there are signs that inside Chavismo — the powerful populist movement named after Chávez — some are beginning to at least raise the possibility of a Venezuela without Chávez.
In the Popular Tribune, the Communist Party's newspaper, a recent column said Chávez's condition "puts over the carpet — like it or not" the possibility of his demise and how that would negatively affect Venezuela's socialist transformation.
And in a meeting of Chávez's campaign committee in late April, Wilmar Castro, who heads the planning commission for the campaign, spoke openly of the need to consider electoral scenarios. One included a campaign without Chávez as the ruling party's candidate.
Loyal allies such as Ramses Reyes, a former congressman and head of a leftist movement called Venezuelan Revolutionary Currents, said it has been hard to imagine life absent Chávez.
"We could never fathom that this man of steel could be a human with defects, with the possibility of getting ill," Reyes said. But Chávez's followers, he said, now also believe there is more to Chávez than his "physical presence," that his philosophy would live on.
Lately, the talk of who would replace Chávez — if failing health forces him out before October or after the election should he win — has become a central issue in Venezuelan public life.
Those with political power include Adan Chávez, the president's older brother, who introduced him to radical political thought and is close to Cuba's leadership. There is also Vice President Elias Jaua, who cut his teeth at university protests, and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and union organizer.
Another loyalist is Diosdado Cabello, a tough former military man who joined Chávez, then an officer in the Venezuelan army, in an ill-fated coup attempt in 1992.