Uncertainty over Chavez's recovery roils Venezuela

Venezuela was mired in uncertainty on Saturday over how long President Hugo Chavez would take to recover...

Venezuelean president Hugo Chavez. Picture: SAPA

<place w:st="on"><country-region w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region> was mired in uncertainty on Saturday over how long President Hugo Chavez would take to recover from a cancer operation, despite assurances by allies he will be fit to run for re-election next year.

The government said Chavez remains fully in charge. He planned to meet with several of his ministers in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Cuba</country-region> for talks on Saturday.

The saga over the 56-year-old's health has convulsed <place w:st="on">South America's biggest oil exporter, underlining the lack of any obvious successor while stoking fears of a dangerous power vacuum and bitter political infighting.

Since Chavez sombrely told his people and the world late on Thursday that he had undergone surgery in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Cuba</country-region> to remove a cancerous tumour, many have questioned whether he will be able to run the nation with the same irrepressible vigour as before.

A phone call to Cuban state TV on Friday did little to quell the speculation and his condition remained hotly debated from <country-region w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region>'s jungle hinterlands to its <place w:st="on">Caribbean beaches.

"Nobody expected this illness ... we are very optimistic we are going to come out of this," Chavez said in the call.

He seemed keen to demonstrate he was still running <country-region w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region> during his recuperation in <city w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Havana, discussing energy and infrastructure projects.

Chavez did not say when he would be back home and one source close to the Venezuelan medical team following Chavez's recovery in Cuba said the diagnosis had revealed a cancer that required aggressive treatment that could take several months.

A wing of the <place w:st="on"><placename w:st="on">Caracas<placename w:st="on">Military<placetype w:st="on">Hospital was being prepared to receive him when he returns, the source said.

No official updates on Chavez's condition have been released except for his own accounts on Thursday and Friday. Local media have said he could have prostate cancer.

"FULLY IN CHARGE"

Chavez's army chief and vice president have gone out of their way to assure anxious Venezuelans that their hitherto apparently invincible president remains fully in charge of the government in the already politically volatile OPEC member.

But their inability to specify a date for his return and the lack of details about the seriousness or type of cancer he is suffering are keeping observers guessing about his future after 12 years as the country's charismatic leader.

"Chavez will be out (of <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region>) for the time that is necessary for him to recover," Vice President Elias Jaua told the Telesur TV network. "The president is at the head of the country and will continue to be at the head of the country."

There have been feverish rumours about Chavez' long-term health prospects since he vanished from public view in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Cuba</country-region> after his initial operation for a pelvic abscess on June 10, followed by the more serious cancer tumour extraction.

Although he talked on Thursday of emerging from an "abyss," questions remain about whether the man who has dominated Venezuelan politics since 1999 and projected his leftist views across the world will be fit to fight the 2012 election.

Jaua attempted to dispel these doubts.

"We have absolute faith and confidence in God ... that Hugo Chavez will be the candidate of the Bolivarian Revolution, of the people and patriots of <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region>, and that he will carry on being president beyond 2012," the vice president said.

Jaua rejected opposition arguments that the president's absence through illness required a delegation of his powers, saying the National Assembly dominated by Chavez loyalists had already approved his extended stay outside the country.

Chavez supporters already were planning a march and other weekend celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Venezuela</country-region>'s independence on Tuesday. These were expected to turn into shows of support for the ailing president.

A regional economic summit scheduled to coincide with the July 5 anniversary has already been postponed.

Despite Chavez's contentious image as a standard bearer of leftist anti-U.S. policies in <place w:st="on">Latin America and farther afield, wishes for a speedy recovery have flooded in.

"Knowing your vocation for service, your generosity, and your entire life dedicated to constructing prosperity and happiness in this world, we have no doubt that the God of Fraternity, Justice and Peace will bring you this fresh victory," Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a political ally of Chavez, said in an effusive message.