Chavez’s Health Problems and the Future of Venezuela

Reports that Chavez underwent two surgeries in Cuba drew a mixed reaction in Venezuela. His supporters sound concerned and compassionate, while the radical opposition makes no attempts to disguise its heightened expectations. Over the past decades, Chavez has survived countless attempts on his life and stayed afloat despite a series of conspiracies, but may prove defenseless at the face of the killer known as cancer. Chavez’s health problems threaten to ruin Venezuela’s current regime and therefore present the opposition with unanticipated opportunities.

Some of Chavez’s foes seem to question his illness and suspect the situation around his health to be a plot masterminded by the Castro brothers and aimed at sustaining the Venezuelan leader’s popularity at the run-up to the 2012 elections. They are under an impression that at the key moment the story of a defiant leader fighting a battle against cancer is going to culminate in a miraculous recovery, reinforcing mass belief in his messianic capabilities.

In the meantime, Chavez’s constituency charges that their leader’s sudden health problems were created by the US and Israeli intelligence agencies. In a typical piece by Oswaldo Leal featured by, claims are made that enemy agents outplayed Chavez’s security and tested on him some kind of a murderous remotely acting technological novelty. Leal cites a score of politicians – Palestine’s Yasser Arafat, Argentine’s Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Chavez’s friend and potential successor, Guarico state governor Willian Lara – who started suffering from health problems exactly at the time their opponents needed most to do away with them. Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo’s cancer diagnosis also coincided in time with his attempts to gain at least some independence from Washington. Enduring rounds of chemotherapy, he lost the grip on the country and was eventually forced to pass the forefront role to a markedly pro-US vice president. In all of the above cases, however, circumstances could evoke suspicions but grounds for specific charges were absent.

The opposition media responded to the news about Chavez’s health problems in a chorus with the demand that he immediately return to Venezuela, least the country’s top post remains unattended. Compared to the past calls that Chavez should leave, the new campaign reads as an attempt to ouster him based on his alleged inability to act as president. It is not so important for the opposition who lands in the president’s chair as a result, the priority being to get Chavez out of the game. Rumors that Chavez’s physical condition is hopeless, that he has at most three months left, and that he is trying to run the country via Twitter are disseminated with increasing pushiness.

Upon returning to Caracas, Chavez was open about his diagnosis, treatment details, and prospects, and the candor pretty much undercut speculations that his chances for recovery were close to zero. Chavez issued several televised addresses, during which he praised Cuban doctors, expressed confidence in his future, and generally appeared to be in decent shape.

Chavez’s posture upon return to Venezuela certainly commands respect. He presided over a ministerial meeting, met the PSUV top management, and visited the military academy, where he referred to the cadets as defenders of socialism. Chavez ordered to convene a congress of Bolivarian circles, their mission being to generate an ambitious ideological program. The agenda is centered around the cultivation of the XXI century socialism and the Bolivarian process, the strengthening of the popular rule in Venezuela, and a launch of a broad international anti-imperialist campaign. The circles are supposed to cooperate with the PSUV and to form jointly with it the Polo Patriotico, an alliance for the upcoming presidential race.

Chavez’s latest round of military appointments is indicative of his plans. Gen. Elvis Sulbarán will head the 3rd infantry division based in Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas. Gen. Jesús Alberto Milano Mendoza will be the chief of the 21st brigade in San Cristóbal, Tachira State. A brigade of paratroopers will be led by Gen. Jesús Suárez Chourio. Overall, the top combat-ready forces are being passed under the command of officers who under various circumstanced demonstrated their loyalty to Chavez. Gen. Ornella Ferreira is appointed as the commander of the president’s security service whose officers Chavez knows by name and recently thanked for fidelity.

Judging by the measures, Chavez is receptive to his supporters’ warnings about the threat of a coup engineered by the right faction of the parliament and the radical opposition. The coup was supposed to materialize during Chavez’s stay at a hospital in Havana. The parliament granted Chavez a permit for a temporary leave he needs to carry on with the medical treatment in Cuba, but the conspirators hoped to present the temporary leave as permanent and – with vast media backing – to rally for the displacement of Chavez.

Chavez delegated part of his authority to vice president Elías Jaua and finance and planning minister Jorge Giordani at the ministerial meeting. He brushed off the opposition’s calls to step down, saying he would be the first to do so if his ability to perform dropped to an unacceptable low. According to the Venezuelan constitution, Chavez is entitled to 180 days off-duty for personal needs under emergency conditions, but that is more than he actually intends to take. A course of chemotherapy awaits him in Cuba, and Chavez says he expects to recover and to go on living for himself, his family, and his country.

In a recent interview to Venezolana de Television (VTV), Chavez admitted that he had to take the role of a national leader due to the intensity of the political struggle in Venezuela and to the country’s conflict with the US. When the anchor asked him about a possible adjustment of the approaches to governance and the feasibility of greater reliance to collective decision-making, Chavez said the changes were on the horizon. Still, the choice of a successor to Chavez is a hot theme in the ranks of the Venezuelan administration, the potential candidates being Chavez’s brother Adán, foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, energy minister and president of the state-run PDVS oil company Rafael Ramirez, vice president Elías Jaua, and several other figures.

With the presidential elections drawing closer, no contender seems to rival Chavez in terms of leadership capabilities, political will, or popularity. “Chavism” without Chavez evidently will not work. Finance minister Jorge Giordani says Chavez will be re-elected in 2012 and on and shows no signs of doubt that Venezuela’s incumbent leader will beat cancer. Reform in Venezuela continues, and there is plenty of work to be done – it is clearly too early for Chavez to retire…

 Nil NIKANDROV, Strategic Culture Foundation

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