Venezuela Unsure of Future as Chavez Announces Cancer

| Jul. 7, 2011 |

Venezuelans have had a fiery ride over the last month. President Hugo Chávez’s initial three-week uncharacteristic silence as he languished in a Havana hospital spurred confused and contradictory statements from his government, fueling suspicions that he was in fact more ill than had been stated.

Images of the socialist firebrand alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro, and clad in his brightly colored tracksuit, did more to add mystique to the whole situation rather than quell any fears Chávez’s fanbase may have.

The silence broke last Thursday as Chávez took to state television to declare—in possibly the most somber of his speeches since entering Venezuela’s political scene a decade ago—that he had been treated for cancer. While not shocking hardcore Chavistas who have a blind and unhesitating faith in their man, the uncharacteristically short and forlorn speech did worry many in the country for its future.

However, the great PR man was not going to miss Tuesday’s bicentennial. As the Latin American revolutionary breaking the shackles of colonialism, Chávez could not miss the opportunity to lead his country into its second century of independence. Venezuelans woke up Monday morning to images of Chávez arriving overnight at Caracas’ airport, met by sycophantic ministers on the tarmac and even bursting into song—in complete contrast to his cancer announcement the week before. He later spoke to thousands of adoring fans from the balcony of his Miraflores palace.

Chávez was in town for the bicentennial, however the event was a damp squib in a country that had prepared for it for years. Chávez is the government of Venezuela. His top-down style was hung out to dry last month as ministers scrambled to make statements and quash the rumors but failed to say anything coherent, perhaps for fear of upsetting their boss.

Foreign minister Nicolas Maduro described Chávez’s “great battle” for his health while other ministers denied the rumours of cancer point blank just two weeks ago. Adán Chávez, even more left-wing than his younger brother and governor of the Chavista stronghold of Barinas, took the helm.

“It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” he said, quoting Ché Guevara and reminding Chávez’s supporters that taking up arms may be necessary to retain power should elections prove insufficient—somewhat worrying for those otherwise inclined.

There was excitement in the markets on the possible demise of Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution, which has left Venezuela’s economy in tatters. Bond traders notably have assumed a transition to a market-friendly government. However, Martin Hutchinson writing for Reuters suggests that even if Chávez was on his way out and the opposition took over, Venezuela still may still “hinder free-market policies and the growth of non-petroleum business.”

Hutchinson adds: “History suggests that even an opposition election victory would be accompanied by only modest changes in economic management, although its Orinoco oil reserves might be developed more quickly if international oil majors played a larger role. In the end, oil's vicious cycle is likely to endure beyond Chávez.”

It is of course oil that has fuelled Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution and the currently high world prices will lubricate the next year as presidential elections build up steam.

State oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) signed a $1.5 billion loan agreement with companies in Japan last week, which will be used to expand production at the Puerto la Cruz and El Palito refineries. The money can be paid back either in oil or cash over 15 years. Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez said that officials are hoping to double output at El Palito, which currently runs at 140,000 barrels per day. The company will also reopen its 2013 dollar-denominated bond for$1.89 billion in a transaction with the country’s central bank. PDVSA is now the country’s biggest dollar-denominated debt issuer, beating the government itself. Just this year, three bond operations have been executed totalling \$7.93 billion.

However, in a country such as Venezuela where Chávez runs the entire show, it's his health and actions that must be followed very closely. His flowery language and incredibly well choreographed appearances—such as his return speech from the balcony of his Miraflores presidential palace this week—inspire supporters to no end.

Even ministers are beginning to sing from the same hymn sheet. Veneuzlan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami was confident on Monday that the revolution would not lose steam. “Now what is coming is a new phase of acceleration in the socialist process,” he said, while admitting that Chavez must rest and recover. “But that will not slow the actions of the revolutionary government.”

Venezuela and the rest of the world can only watch and wait.