Chávez Can Remain Outside Venezuela for Months, Vice President Says

| Jul. 1, 2011 |

Published by New York Times //pdf1//

Simon Romero

CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chávez, who shocked the nation by revealing that he had a cancerous tumor removed and would “continue battling,” could legally keep governing Venezuela from his seclusion in Cuba for as long as six months if necessary, his vice president said Friday.

The statement by the vice president, Elías Jaua, a loyal supporter of Mr. Chávez who has said he has no plans to temporarily replace the president, will almost certainly intensify concerns here over a power vacuum as Mr. Chávez recovers from cancer surgery in a Cuban medical complex.

In the few weeks the president has been out of the country, a bitter dispute between Mr. Chávez’s followers and the political opposition has erupted over whether the constitution allows Mr. Chávez, 56, to rule the country from abroad during his convalescence.

But the possibility of a much longer stay in Cuba has further emboldened Venezuela’s spirited, if fractured, opposition, reinvigorating its hopes of defeating Mr. Chávez in a presidential election next year.

“It cannot be that the president is incapacitated for six months to fully exercise his duties, and nothing happens,” said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. “The vice president of the republic needs to take care of this.”

Looking pale and keeping his remarks uncharacteristically short, Mr. Chávez acknowledged from Cuba on Thursday that he had undergone surgery there to remove the tumor, but he gave no indication as to what type of cancer he was battling or when he hoped to return to Venezuela.

Mr. Jaua emphasized that he fully expected Mr. Chávez to return to Venezuela within 180 days. In his remarks, made in an interview with a Colombian radio station, he made it clear that he and other top officials in Mr. Chávez’s government were relying on an interpretation of the constitution that would allow the president to exercise his duties as head of state from abroad for a three month period, which could then be extended for another three months.

“We’re going to have a victory for the life of President Hugo Chávez,” said Mr. Jaua, who directed land expropriations before Mr. Chávez named him vice president.

The situation is made more complex by a governing apparatus that revolves around the commanding personality of Mr. Chávez. The vice president has shown no desire to step into the revolutionary leader’s shoes, even if it just for several weeks. Senior military officials, meanwhile, asserted on Friday that Mr. Chávez remained in charge.

“He’s up to date on everything that is happening, he’s asking questions and verifying things, he’s been very active,” Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a top official in the armed forces, said on state television Friday morning. General Rangel Silva said that he expected the president to return “soon,” but added that, “Undoubtedly our commander in chief, the president of the republic, needs some time.”

State television here broadcast a video on Friday, which it said was dated June 29, showing Mr. Chávez in a work meeting with General Rangel Silva, along with the president’s his brother, Adán Chávez, the governor of Barinas, and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro. In the video, Mr. Chavez said he planned to continue with his rehabilitation, while also reading a book by Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

Still, the dearth of details about Mr. Chávez’s health problems and the way in which he announced his cancer surgery — after three weeks of absence in Cuba and after Mr. Chávez and state media here claimed he was wrestling only with a pelvic abscess — have raised doubts about how much even senior officials in his government know about his condition.

Last week, Adán Chávez, the president’s brother, said he expected him to return in 10 to 12 days, in time for Venezuelan independence celebrations on July 5. But then Venezuela’s government, citing Mr. Chávez’s health problems before the president himself disclosed his cancer surgery, abruptly cancelled a summit of Latin American leaders scheduled for July 5.

Until the president’s own announcement on Thursday night, prominent supporters of his were rejecting reports that he had cancer, labeling them disinformation efforts aimed at destabilizing Mr. Chávez’s government. Even after Mr. Chávez’s disclosure, some here refused to believe he could be seriously ill.

“No, the president does not have cancer,” said Alfredo Márquez, 53, a member of the Bolivarian militia, an armed force established by Mr. Chávez. “He has something simpler.”

The vagueness of Venezuela’s constitution regarding the replacement of the president, even temporarily, allows various interpretations to be made, according to constitutional lawyers. Moreover, the control Mr. Chávez’s supporters maintain in the National Assembly and the judicial branch diminish the viability of challenges to the president’s own vision of whether he should ceded powers due to his absence.

María Eugenia Díaz and Girish Gupta contributed reporting.