Venezuelans split over what Chavez's cancer means

| Jul. 1, 2011 |

Published by Reuters

By Girish Gupta and Efrain Otero

CARACAS, July 1 (Reuters) - From shantytowns to posh mountainside high-rises, Venezuelans were split on Friday over their country's political prospects after President Hugo Chavez's revelation that he had been treated for cancer.

Sympathizers captivated by the president's charisma and broad social development campaigns insisted the ebullient leader was on his way to recovery and would return to drive forward his self-styled revolution.

"We raise our pleas to God almighty that he send us back our commander in perfect health," said Freddy Rodriguez, dressed in a drab-green military uniform in the poor neighborhood of 23 de Enero, a bastion of Chavez support.

"We are loyal to our commander president Hugo Chavez from these battle trenches."

He joined several hundred government supporters who donned their signature red shirts and chanted "Onward, commander" as part of extended celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence from Spain on July 5.

"The cancer, thank God, is not advanced," said shoe shiner Alfredo Ramirez on the bustling pedestrian boulevard of Sabana Grande, "He is recovering. It is not a terminal cancer."

Chavez, 56, is being treated in Cuba and has not said when he will return—fueling speculation that his coalition may fracture in his absence. Critics question if he is fit enough to govern.

Chavez detractors enjoying the early-morning air in Caracas' leafy east side said they feared the president's absence could destabilize the OPEC nation after more than 12 years of his high-profile leadership.

"We are about to lose our president," said Laura Gleeson, walking her dachshund on the slopes of the forested Avila Mountain that towers over the capital. "This is a huge problem for the country. We're going to have a battle between those who want to be president in Chavez's own party."

Opposition leaders are gearing up for a presidential election next year that already looked like a tight race and is likely to be upended by his illness.

A weakened Chavez might lack the strength for a full-fledged campaign, but his recovery could trigger a wave of sympathy and give a dash of humanity to a leader known for his almost super-human stamina.

"A sick president is unfit to rule here or anywhere else in the world," said Alejandro Diaz, 28, a waiter at a swanky hotel rooftop bar.

Despite the often rancorous divisions that have at times flared into violent street demonstrations, few dispute that Chavez's fate can be separated from that of the Caribbean nation.

"The future of the country depends on Chavez, whether you like it or not," said Sofia Sanchez, finishing her walk at a park in affluent eastern Caracas.

(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Xavier Briand)