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Chavez was having none of it. On Monday, one day prior to his latest setback, he accused the country’s political opposition of using his illness to gain political advantage for next year’s presidential election. “They are talking about the theory that I’m in grave condition,” he said in a live TV interview by telephone. The president was apparently responding to opposition legislator Julio Borges’ remarks the previous day. “A country cannot be governed by remote control,” Borges said in reference to Chavez’s visits to Cuba and his decreasing number of public appearances. Other opponents accuse Chavez of not being honest about the seriousness of his illness. Yet some have expressed sorrow regarding the cancer diagnosis and wish the president a speedy recovery. Chavez continues to insist he is “recovering completely.”
Whether he is or not, political opponents have been anything but formidable with respect to mounting a serious challenge to Chavez, who came to power in 1999. His opposition, described as one of the most “incompetent and fractured in the hemisphere” and led largely by “leftovers from the corrupt political class that once had a lock on power,” has been unable to mount a serious challenge to the anti-American strongman for over a decade. In 2002, they attempted and failed to take power via a coup d’etat and an oil strike. In 2004, they again lost a referendum. And in 2010, in a gross political miscalculation, they boycotted parliamentary elections, giving the president’s allies total control of Venezuela’s National Assembly.
Yet it appears they may have finally learned their lesson. Last Monday, a coalition of opposition parties, calling itself the Democratic Unity Party, announced that they would come together in their effort to beat Chavez in 2012. “There is nothing that justifies discrimination, exclusion, insults or humiliation,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a spokesman for the coalition at Monday’s news conference. “All Venezuelans will be united,” he added.
Aveledo also noted the alliance would continue beyond the upcoming elections. “Those of us who have taken on this commitment understand that this is more than an electoral alliance and mere governmental agreement for a few years,” he said. “We form a long term political and social alliance in accordance with the deep problems the country is facing right now, problems that will require persistent and constant action over time to change the fundamental direction of the country.”
The slate of potential opposition candidates include Henrique Capriles Radonski, 38, who said he would emulate Brazil’s “modern-left” model of economic and social policies; Leopoldo Lopez, 40, dogged by corruption charges but recently cleared by an international court to run; Manuel Rosales, a pro-business populist, who proposed handing out Venezuela’s oil wealth via cash deposits to citizens; Antonio Ledezma, a staunch Chavez opponent; Henry Ramo Allup, leader of Democratic Action, the larger of two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics for four decades before Chavez; and Pablo Perez, who is popular in Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous state.
Henri Falcon, a former Chavez ally respected for being a “third-way” politician combining a center-left social agenda with support for business, and recently elected legislator Maria Corina Machado are also possible contenders.
Despite the determination by his opponents to present a united front, Chavez remains favored for re-election 2012. If he were to resign or die, Vice President Elias Jaua would take his place. Yet it is reported that Jaua lacks Chavez’s charisma or his ability to connect with the people. Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela’s University of the East, theorizes that such a problem could be surmounted if Chavez was able to designate his successor, should that reality become necessary. “There is a great sense of loyalty within the Chavez movement,” he said. “If Chavez himself is unable to run for physical reasons, but endorses a given candidate, the movement will not fall apart.” If not? “There is no second-in-command in the Chavez movement,” Ellner said. “If Chavez is unable to endorse anyone, there will inevitably be dissension.”
Late yesterday afternoon, CNN reported that Chavez appeared in public, wearing a red track suit and a baseball cap with the design of the Venezuelan flag. He played catch with his ministers in front of the presidential palace as cameras rolled. In response to questions about his health, Chavez was adamant. “I’m here; this is my answer,” Chavez told reporters. “I am my own answer.”
How much longer he remains that answer is anyone’s guess.
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