CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s ailing socialist leader, Hugo Chavez, was authorized by parliament yesterday to fly to Cuba for as long as needed to have more cancer surgery that has shaken the country ahead of a presidential election.
“I will return as always, with more energy, more enthusiasm, more joy and determination to take my place in the vanguard,” Chavez said in a letter requesting permission to travel abroad for more than five days, as required by the constitution.
The “indefinite permission” was quickly approved by the National Assembly, where Chavez has a majority, and raised the spectre of another possible lengthy absence after he spent weeks being treated in Havana last year.
Chavez, 57, who needs surgery on a lesion in the same place a cancerous pelvic tumour was removed last year, may leave today. The new lesion was discovered during a weekend trip to Cuba last year. Chavez is a friend of Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, and is guaranteed discreet treatment there.
“I am completely sure we will win this new battle,” Chavez wrote in typically confident language.
Opposition politicians – who see the Oct 7 presidential vote as their best chance to end Chavez’s 13-year rule – have called for him to name a temporary replacement. But that looks unlikely seeing as last year he ran affairs of state from his hospital bed.
“You cannot govern from anywhere that is not in national territory,” opposition legislator Alfonso Marquina said. “We demand that the constitution be respected.”
In October Chavez had declared himself cured but his health downturn has thrown his re-election campaign into uncertainty, with questions also being asked about his capacity to rule for another six-year term.
Since storming to power in a 1998 election, the sports-loving former soldier has thrived on an image of physical strength and is clearly shaken by his health problems.
While his latest operation is likely to evoke sympathy, analysts say that could be offset by concerns over his fitness to rule. By contrast, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 39, projects an image of youth and energy.
“On one hand, it seems unlikely that Venezuelans want to vote for a weak president,” said Gabriel Sanchez Zinny, a Latin American expert with US-based Blue Star Strategies consultancy.