Venezuela gov’t, army insist Chavez still in charge

CARACAS, (Reuters) – Military and civilian allies of  Venezuela’s convalescent President Hugo Chavez insisted yesterday he was still running the OPEC oil-producing nation  despite his prolonged absence in Cuba for the removal of a  cancerous tumor.

Army chief General Henry Rangel Silva and ministers moved  quickly to head off speculation about a possible power vacuum  or political infighting after Chavez, 56, revealed late on  Thursday he was still receiving treatment after the operation.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses the nation during a televised speech on June 30, 2011. REUTERS/VTV via Reuters TV

He did not say when he would be back from Cuba, where he  disappeared from public view after surgery on June 10. Nor did  he specify the treatment he is receiving, leading to rumors the  malignant cells may have spread, requiring chemotherapy.

Local media had said Chavez could have prostate cancer.

The absence of the charismatic leader — who has dominated  Venezuelan politics since 1999 and projected his leftist views  across Latin America and the world — have raised doubts about  his ability to campaign for a presidential election in 2012.

It was also a humbling admission of mortality from a  usually supremely confident politician with a string of  election wins who has often taunted his foes with the prospect  of staying in power until 2021.

With doubts swirling over how long his recovery could take  and opponents questioning how Venezuela should be ruled in his  absence, Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua insisted Chavez  was in “full exercise of authority” from Cuba.

“Let no one have any doubts — it’s Chavez who’s in charge  here,” Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez echoed.

One source close to the Venezuelan medical team that is  following Chavez’s recovery said the diagnosis had revealed a  cancer that required aggressive treatment that could take  several months. A wing of the Caracas Military Hospital was  being prepared to receive him when he returns, the source  said.

No official public updates on Chavez’s detailed medical  condition have been released since his own account late on  Thursday.

While wishing Chavez a prompt recovery, the opposition  accused the government of lying about his condition.

CONSTITUTIONAL
ISSUES?

They also argued that under the constitution, he should  delegate powers in the case of prolonged illness or absence.

“We don’t know when the president is returning … There  could be a flood of demands (arguing this) in the courts,” said  Ramon Aveledo, leader of the Democratic Unity opposition bloc. General Rangel Silva said the military, a pillar of support  for Chavez’s leftist government, would guarantee constitutional  order during Chavez’s absence.

The president, he said, would be home soon. “He is getting  better, he’s fine,” Rangel told state television.

To bolster the message that Chavez remained in charge,  state TV yesterday showed a video of the talkative president  chairing a mini-cabinet meeting in Havana on Wednesday.

“We shouldn’t let our guard down for a moment. Onwards, at  a victory pace,” Chavez said in the recorded video, in which he  said rehabilitation included daily walks and a special diet.

He said his friend and mentor, former Cuban President Fidel  Castro, sent him treats like peanut butter and cooked lamb.

Chavez, one of the world’s fiercest critics of Washington,  confirmed postponement of a regional summit scheduled for July  5 in Venezuela on the 200th anniversary of its independence.

Markets have generally reacted positively to news of  Chavez’s health problems, on the presumption they improve the  chances of a more business-friendly government. Venezuela’s  benchmark 2027 rose 1.750 points to 76.563.

“Political vacuums are rarely to be encouraged but this one  could lead to a slowdown in public spending and could raise the  likelihood of an opposition victory in the next elections and  thus a less confrontational governing style,” said Richard  Segal, an emerging markets analyst at Jefferies in London.

U.S. CAUTIOUS, A
WORRY FOR CUBA

Washington, which accuses Chavez of authoritarian rule in a  major U.S. oil supplier, said it saw no immediate instability.

“This is clearly a personal matter and something that he  and his family are dealing with,” State Department spokesman  Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington.

“We’re sympathetic to that. But we don’t have any reason to  believe there’s anything involving stability there.”

Chavez’s illness however is a source of concern for his  main political ally Cuba, for whom Venezuela is a key economic  benefactor and oil supplier.

Chavez allies vowed they will continue his leftist drive,  which has included nationalization of much of the economy. In Caracas shantytowns, where Chavez is still widely loved  for using oil revenues to build new clinics and schools,  supporters saluted him overnight with fireworks.

“He’s alive! He’s alive!” one group shouted.

Opposition leaders, seeking to rally around a unity  candidate to be picked in February for the 2012 presidential  vote, may see the news as a sign Chavez is weakened. “It is impossible to deduce if he will or will not be in a  physical state and the right mood to go into the 2012  campaign,” said local analyst Luis-Vicente Leon.

The opposition was trying hard to avoid appearing gleeful  at Chavez’s ill health, although some detractors posted  vitriolic messages on Twitter and other sites.

Known for eight-hour speeches and frequent camera  appearances, Chavez left Venezuela in near silence and its  government functioning at half-steam for almost three weeks  after the June 10 operation to remove a pelvic abscess.

“The president looks fallible for the first time and it may  be only a matter of time before the cracks begin to appear,  potentially between a civilian and a more military wing (in  government),” the British-based LatinNews newsletter said.

Latin American leaders sent messages of solidarity.

Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, treated for cancer last  year, wished him “faith” and “strength.” Colombian President  Juan Manuel Santos, an erstwhile foe who has patched up his  relationship with Chavez, wished him a “speedy recovery.”

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