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Despite weeks of deception and affectation of good health, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez is in Cuba for chemotherapy, heightening speculation about whether he’ll still run for re-election in 2012 and how the regime will survive after him. His declining health adds another burden to his campaign for a third term, as a majority of Venezuelans already oppose his re-election due to a horrible economy, a soaring murder rate, and relentless power grabs.
Rumors about Chavez’s health began when he disappeared for weeks in Cuba, absent from the limelight he craves. His government originally claimed he had a pelvic abscess, but reports that he had prostate cancer quickly spread. Chavez has since admitted that a baseball-sized tumor was removed on June 20, without offering any details. He says he is now cancer-free, but is going back to Cuba for chemotherapy to prevent the return of the cancer.
Chavez’s decision to go to Cuba reflects his closeness with the Castro brothers. Brazilian President Rousseff offered to have him treated in his country or to send two top doctors to Venezuela. He refused, instead deciding to get authorization from the National Assembly to go to Cuba. This was probably done because leaks of information are less likely under a dictatorship. The Castro regime is more than happy to offer such support to its closest ally, as two-thirds of its oil is subsidized from Venezuela. If this aid were to be lost, Cuba’s economy “would not necessarily crash, but it would endure a devastating blow that it can hardly afford right now,” explains Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue.
Questions about the 56-year old leader’s health may hinder his re-election campaign. Already, 64 percent of the people oppose giving him a third term. Basic goods are in short supply, and there is an exodus of doctors out of the country because of skyrocketing health care costs. The murder rate has gone up 400% since Chavez took power. There were over 16,000 murders in Venezuela in 2009. To put that in perspective, there were 4,644 violent civilian deaths in Iraq that year. Venezuela also had the world’s highest inflation rate last year. Foreign direct investment has plummeted from a gain of $349 million in 2008 to an outflow of $3.1 billion because of nationalizations.
Oil production has fallen from 3.5 million barrels per day when Chavez was elected to 2.5 million barrels per day now. Corruption and incompetent management in the oil industry has led to worker strikes. Blackouts are a common occurrence. Ironically, in February, the power went out on Chavez while he was giving a speech condemning the U.S. This year, the Arab Spring inspired a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners that grabbed the attention of the entire country. With a record like this, it is not hard to see why Chavez only has an approval rating of 36 percent, according to one poll.
However, the opposition faces an uphill fight in defeating Chavez at the ballot box. His government now controls 72 television stations, 400 radio stations and 18 newspapers. An arrest warrant has been issued for the CEO of the last independent television station. During the last National Assembly elections, which stripped Chavez’s party of its supermajority, the regime tipped the scales in its favor through redistricting, lowering the number of seats from proportional representation, and ending the rule that gave the minority party in a district a minimal number of seats. A law banning the spreading of “false information” was just used to convict a former governor who criticized Chavez’s government for sponsoring drug trafficking. The links between drug trafficking and Chavez’s government are thoroughly documented.
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