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February 27, 2012

Experts: Chavez's Diagnosis Weakens Re-Election Chances

by Jerome Socolovsky

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, 57,  is reported to be in good condition following surgery in Cuba to remove a tumor according to Vice President Elias Jaua, who made the announcement Tuesday to Venezuelan lawmakers.  Jaua told the National Assembly that doctors removed a pelvic lesion and the surrounding tissue from President Chavez.

The president traveled to Cuba last week to undergo the surgery for what he said was likely a cancerous tumor.

Mr. Chavez disclosed his condition last week while visiting the site of a proposed tractor factory. He said he had been examined by doctors in Cuba who found a lesion in his pelvis where a cancerous tumor was removed last year.

"I am in good physical shape to confront this new battle," he said.

But many Venezuelans are doubtful.

"Cancer is something different.  It is not a game.  He is sick," said Caracas resident Augusto Lopez.  

Mr. Chavez has ruled Venezuela for 13 years and is hoping to be re-elected for another six in October.

At a discussion of the upcoming election at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, Roberto Briceño-León of the Central University of Venezuela said the illness clearly weakens Mr. Chavez's chances.

"The normal reaction is: 'There should be somebody else,'" he said.  

Mr. Chavez had chemotherapy last fall and insisted that he had fully recovered.  Briceño-León says the ruling party will now suffer because there is no clear successor.

The professor of sociology says autocratic leaders often seek to project an aura of virtual immortality, but he says it is a double-edged sword.

"A mental representation of the power, that is at the same time very powerful because [it] really is effective in the control of the population," he said.  "But at the same time, it is very weak, because it could disappear from one year to another, and when that disappears people lose respect of the power."  

Venezuelans are taking it personally that Mr. Chavez tried to hide his health condition from them, says Rev. Jose Virtuoso, rector of the Catholic University Andres Bello.

"I think all of us Venezuelans are offended that there has not been more transparency over this, as there has been in other countries," he said.  

Rev. Virtuoso gives the examples of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who was recently treated for cancer, and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who had a non-malignant thyroid removed.