Venezuela's Chávez renewed health scare casts cloud on reelection

BOGOTA — Just a few years ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez used to taunt the opposition by vowing to stay in power until 2031. But now that the 57-year-old leader is facing another cancer scare, some analysts question his ability to hold onto the presidency through the current election cycle.

Facing a tight reelection against a unified opposition, Chávez had been stepping up his public appearances and relying on his legendary charisma to secure an additional six-year term.

Despite being in power for 13 years, he still enjoys approval ratings of about 50 percent. But the announcement Tuesday that he will be returning to Cuba to have a lesion removed, and that it’s likely cancerous, changes the equation.

While Chávez remains popular, his allies and ministers are often blamed for the nation’s problems, wrote Daniel Kerner, a Latin America analyst with New York-based Eurasia Group. And that makes Chávez’s illness — even if he is healthy enough to campaign — a serious liability.

“A large share of voters would probably be reluctant to elect a president that may not be around to fulfill his mandate, especially given how unpopular figures around Chávez are,” Kerner wrote.

After a week of rumors about his failing health, Chávez on Tuesday admitted that doctors had found a lesion or “wound” on the site where he had a cancerous tumor removed in June.

Later, he told reporters that he would be out of the public eye while he recuperates. But over the last 13 years, Chávez has become the face and force of his government — and analysts said there are few understudies to take his place.

“There is no Chávez substitute and without him, there’s no way they could win,” said Anibal Romero, a professor of Liberal Arts at the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas. “But there’s still so much we don’t know, and that makes it impossible to extrapolate.”

Among the unknowns is how soon Chávez may return to the political scene. Doctors said it’s feasible that the lesion is benign and the president is back on his feet within days. But Chávez himself has been more cautious. On Tuesday, he said he would likely be out of public view for “weeks” and added that even when he does return he’ll have to pace himself.

That has made the issue of succession — even if it’s to serve as his proxy on the campaign trail — more pressing.

In June, when Chávez first announced that he’d been treated for cancer, rumors swirled about who would be next in line. At the time, Vice President Elias Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Chávez’s brother Adan, were on the short list.

But the political landscape has shifted over the last eight months, said Saúl Cabrera, vice president of Consultores 21, a market research firm.

All three men have faded from public view, he said. In addition, Chávez has tapped Jaua and Maduro to run for gubernatorial posts in the key states of Miranda and Carabobo — effectively, sidelining them from presidential lineup, Cabrera said.

Meanwhile, longtime ally, Diosdado Cabello, has been on the rise. Cabello, 48, was a lieutenant when he joined Chávez during a failed coup in 1992. He went on to become the governor of Miranda State and to hold a series of cabinet positions. He was also interim president in 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted in a coup.

In December, Chávez reappointed Cabello as vice president of the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV. And last month, Cabello was named president of the National Assembly.

“He has become more relevant and much more visible,” Cabrera said. “He’s on the crest of the wave.”

Even so, surveys that Consultores 21 conducted last year suggested the PSUV could not win the presidency without Chávez on the ticket.

Even if he does make a quick recovery, the way Chávez has handled the health issue has become contentious, said Elsy Manzanares, the host of Uno Levanta, a Venezuelan radio show that covers politics and news.

For weeks, the president had been telling supporters that he was out of the woods and ready to put up a vigorous fight against his rival — Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski.

As rumors swirled last week that his health was failing, Chávez and his ministers came out fighting. Early Tuesday, just hours before Chávez said he would undergo more surgery, the minister of communications and Cabello both blasted the media for questioning his health.

The fact that even his own ministers appear to be in the dark is alarming, Manzanares said.

“This raises some serious credibility issues among some of his more rational supporters,” she said. But his die-hard followers are likely to forgive him. “They treat Chavismo like a religion. No matter what he does, they say ‘Amen’ ”

While Chávez has admitted that he had a baseball-sized tumor removed from his abdomen in June, he never said what type of cancer it was or what organs were being affected.

Doctors have speculated that colon, bowel or bladder cancers are likely culprits. But rarer forms of soft-tissue cancers are also possible.

On Tuesday, the coalition of opposition parties, which is backing Capriles, called on the administration to be more forthcoming.

“The speculation and stories that circulate are directly related to the secrecy and lack of precise clear and medically trustworthy information,” the organization wrote in a communiqué. “Telling the truth is a democratic duty to the Venezuelan people.”

Cabello announced Wednesday that a prayer vigil for the president will be held Thursday and said Chávez would be asking congress for permission to travel — a request that’s mandatory for absences of five days or more.

But as of late Wednesday, Chávez had not designated an interim president and hadn’t said when he will return to Cuba.