Chavez Still in Charge

The Venezuelan strongman's health is as mysterious as ever.

On Wednesday, Miami-based El Nuevo Herald reported that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been admitted to a military hospital on Tuesday, with possible signs of "kidney failure requiring dialysis," according to one of two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. The first source also characterized Chavez's condition as "quite serious," while the second claimed he was "in bad shape" when he left the presidential palace on his way to the military hospital. Venezuelan authorities have adopted a policy of strict secrecy concerning the condition of Chavez, and the president himself called the state television early Thursday to assure the country that he was fine. "I am doing well," Chavez claimed. "There are a group of people who continue to launch rumors."

Chavez had returned to Venezuela a week ago last Thursday after what he described as his fourth and ostensibly last round of chemotherapy in Cuba. Chavez also claimed that recent medial tests show he is cancer free. The president has never revealed the type of cancer he has, but he did admit that that tumor he had removed back in June was the "size of a baseball," and that he was in intensive care following six hours of surgery. The tumor had been discovered following an initial operation on June 10th for the removal of a pelvic abscess. Doctors began to suspect the Venezuelan leader had other problems, and subsequent tests "confirmed the presence of an abscessed tumor with the presence of cancerous cells, which made necessary a second operation that allowed for the complete extraction of the tumor," Chavez said at the time.

Oncologists contacted by El Nuevo Herald speculate, based on the data available, that Chavez may have colon cancer. But there are doubts regarding the accuracy of information being provided, due to the fact that Chavez is determined to project an image of someone who is in recovery. Venezuela's Information Minister Andres Izarra attempted to reinforce that image late Wednesday when he challenged the Spanish-language sister publication of the Miami Herald's description of Chavez's condition. A Twitter message stated, "Who they have to admit are the reporters of Nuevo Herald, but into an asylum."

Chavez himself echoed that statement. "I'm fine," he said by telephone. "I'm here in my place of work and working," adding that "I'm going to completely get out of this soon." He then offered further reassurance to the Venezuelan people. "I would be the communicate any difficulty in the process. None beyond the normal has come up," Chavez declared.

Other reports paint a different picture. Fox Latino reported that doctors are considering transferring Chavez to the private Hospital Clinicas Caracas, where he could be better treated for renal problems described as aplastic anemia, a condition in which the body's bone marrow fails to make enough new stem cells which develop into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. It can be fatal. Furthermore, Roger Noriega, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), citing his own sources within Venezuela, is convinced that the president is indeed in serious condition and “not improving like his doctors had hoped.” Noriega addressed the other obvious concern. "This means we should start to think, and we should prepare for a world without Hugo Chávez," he said.

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.