CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s imminent departure for more cancer surgery in Cuba has thrown his re-election campaign into uncertainty and once again shaken the socialist leader’s passionate supporters.
Though the 57-year-old former soldier looked stoic and played down the dangers of his latest condition, the announcement inevitably raises questions over his ability to stand for the October 7 presidential vote – or rule beyond it.
Chavez, who has dominated Venezuela since taking office in 1999 and whose fierce anti-US rhetoric has turned him into one of the world’s best-known leaders, said he will head back to Havana for the next operation by the weekend.
He said a two-centimetre lesion had been discovered in his pelvis where surgeons removed a baseball-sized tumour in June, and that there was a high probability it was malignant.
His challenger for the presidency in October, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, was quick to wish Chavez well.
“I wish my rival a successful operation, a quick recovery and a long life,” Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, said yesterday in a careful tweet.
Capriles, who won the Democratic Unity coalition’s primary this month, does not want to give any impression he is exulting in Chavez’s health problems. He wants to focus on issues such as crime and unemployment, rather than a head-to-head battle.
Chavez’s new surgery could hardly have come at a worse time for the government because Capriles – a centre-left politician who exudes youth and energy – picked up momentum from his primary win and the campaigns were just starting to heat up.
Democratic Unity issued a statement calling for transparency from the government, saying rumours had spread so quickly because the public had little access to reliable information.
“Telling the truth is a democratic duty to the Venezuelan people – an even more important duty when it concerns the health of the person who is leading the government and has offered his candidacy to continue in that role for six more years,” it said.
Some of the president’s closest allies, including those who had denied rumours of any downturn in Chavez’s health over the weekend, did a quick U-turn, calling for calm in Venezuela.
“Our message is for unity and faith that President Chavez will triumph over this latest obstacle life has put in his way,” Information Minister Andres Izarra said. “His connection with the people will help him overcome any health problem.”
Underlining the secrecy surrounding Chavez’s condition, Izarra was among those who had virulently condemned “rumours” he had gone to Cuba for treatment during Venezuela’s long carnival weekend, calling it a “dirty war by scum.”
Chavez then unexpectedly appeared in a televised tour of a tractor factory to announce that he had, in fact, been to Havana for tests and would need to return there by the weekend.
He said the surgery would be supposedly less complicated than his two operations last year, and that he would be fine for the presidential race. Less reassuringly for supporters, he also talked gravely about the “revolution” continuing without him.
“I’m a human being,” he said. “I’m not immortal.”
Venezuela was awash with speculation and gossip.