Uncertainty about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Health Affects Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

Perhaps in no other country, six months before extremely polarized presidential elections, has the candidate whom all the polls predict will win undergone emergency surgery--for cancer--with the candidate who opposes him celebrating that misfortune in private but not daring to say so publically, falling into the most confusing campaign rather than taking advantage of the situation. That is what is happening today in Venezuela.

On Feb. 26, President Hugo Chavez, running for re-election, was operated on for the second time in eight months, and, after receiving chemotherapy and now underdoing radiation treatment, he has confounded friends and foes with the dynamism that he has stamped on his administration. In the opposition, with the exception of the mainstream media, which toy daily with the idea of Chavez's death, no one dares to predict out loud how much time the president may have left; everything is based on rumors. But both approaches fail and work against Henrique Capriles, the man the Mesa de Unidad Democratica (MUD) and the press chose to run against Chavez in the Oct. 7 election (NotiSur, Feb. 24, 2012).

Newspapers like El Universal and El Nacional not only put a date on when the president will die but also complain that Venezuelans are victims of a dictatorship that has eliminated freedom of speech. Since they write this every day, both the premature death notice as well as the serious denunciations carried on their front pages collapse under their own weight, as do the rumors. Chavez was operated on for the first time in June 2011, and, since then, rather than watching his funeral, society has watched a man who exhibits unusual energy for someone suffering from cancer (NotiSur, Aug. 12, 2011).

Lack of information leads to wild rumors

No one doubts the seriousness of Chavez's illness. His ministers and supporters act as if nothing is happening, but in private all admit that they cannot imagine a future without him, although they have to consider the possibility.

Opposition leaders know that the president's death or engraining the idea of his death in society increases their possibilities for taking over the government and ending the Revolucion Bolivariana.

But they do not know how to act. Some believe that this is the best time to speed up the rumor mill.

Others--among them Capriles--think that they need to show compassion, participating in spreading rumors but publically showing solidarity with the president. "I wish him a long life," says the MUD candidate in almost every speech.

When Chavez requested permission from the Asamblea Nacional (AN) to temporarily leave the country--for Cuba, where he had surgery and received radiation treatment--some deputies said that they would approve the request only out of pity but that what the president should do was transfer power to Vice President Elias Jaua. In the AN corridors, they said, without embarrassment, that that was the first step to later asking for Chavez's removal for a hypothetical "permanent absence," a provision established in Article 233 of the Constitution in "cases of death, resignation, physical or mental incapacity."

Chavez saw the game they were playing. In a few hours, he called his supporters together to accompany him to the airport where he would leave for Havana. He made a formidable show of power. The crowds that filled the streets silenced the opposition. The administration in turn enacts new measures every day that will undoubtedly have strong electoral repercussions.

Chavez travels regularly to Cuba. He stays five days in Havana to have radiation treatment, then returns for to Caracas for five days, to then repeat the cycle. While in Venezuela, he is highly visible and speaks, which is his most effective way of captivating the crowds. He mixes poetic phrases--"Each time one returns home it's impossible not to feel an indomitable pounding surging from the depths of ones insides"--with others that are harsher and directed at the opposition and the US. …