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Chavez Health Drives Venezuela Toward Uncertain Future

  • Brian Padden

Venezuelans could face an uncertain future if President Hugo Chavez, who is recovering from a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba, is not able to return to Caracas soon. Speculation about the president’s health has already sparked a constitutional debate over government plans to postpone the inauguration and the opposition calls for a new election.

In the days after winning a fourth presidential term of office in October, Hugo Chavez seemed healthy and full of life. But since his December 11 cancer operation in Cuba, he has not spoken or been seen in public.

Venezuela's Information Minister Ernesto Villegas issued a public statement on the president’s condition acknowledging that he has suffered complications caused by a lung infection but that his condition is stable.

"The treatment is being applied constantly and rigorously and the patient is assimilating it," Vilegas said.

The government’s plan to postpone the inauguration and designate Vice President Nicolas Maduro acting head of state in the interim has sparked a constitutional debate about the legality of such a move.

Citing the constitution, opposition leaders say if Chavez is unable to be inaugurated, then National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello should take over and new elections must be held within 30 days.

Michael Shifter an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington says a short delay will not likely cause a major political uproar. But he says if Chavez does not return soon, pressure will mount to hold new elections.

“I think there will be a lot of pressure for that. There probably is a limit, it’s very hard to be precise and [to know] what the limit is but I think if it goes on for a couple of months it’s going to be very, very difficult to sustain,” Shifter said.

Vice President Maduro says the constitution allows the Supreme Court to set a new inauguration date and has dismissed speculation that Chavez is no longer fit to continue as president. But Shifter says if Chavez is incapacitated or worse the opposition needs to press for new elections without seeming uncaring of the president’s condition.

“I think the opposition has to be careful also in dealing with the tremendous emotional factor for Chavez. It can’t seem to be heartless,” Shifter said.

That emotional factor is at the forefront of government broadcasts of scenes of Chavez during happier times, in a seeming effort to forestall political chaos if he does not return to public life.