Published by Minyanville
President Hugo Chávez arrived back in Venezuela this week, declaring himself free of cancer, after four cycles of chemotherapy over the last four months. He arrived buoyant as ever in Táchira state, confidently claiming, “I am free of illness… Chávez is back!”
However, many experts are claiming that it is impossible to be so certain, so soon after treatment. “No matter what kind of cancer he was treated for, it's just too early to tell,” one cancer expert, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. Karen Hooper, analyst at Stratfor, added: “This doesn't mean anything concrete. No one accurately declares themselves free of cancer after just a few months. This is political theater.”
And political theater it was. Visiting a Catholic shrine, Chávez took a punt at the country’s opposition—who have suffered two major blows this week—saying, “It would be easier for a donkey to pass through the eye of a needle than for the opposition to win the elections,” playing on a Biblical quote. He also attacked the US for the death of his close friend, former Libyan leader Muammer Gadhafi who was confirmed dead yesterday, describing him as, “as a great fighter, a revolutionary and martyr.”
(See also: What Gadhafi's Death Will Mean to Oil Prices)
The struggle of the donkey through the eye of a needle was made ever more difficult this week as the Supreme Court ruled that popular opposition figure Leopoldo López was allowed to run for the presidency but not able to hold office if he won. The charismatic former mayor of Chacao, a wealthy area of Caracas, was banned from holding political office in 2008 when he was set to become mayor of the capital itself. The Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruled in his favor last month yet the Supreme Court defied the decision.
“I am a candidate,” López said, however. “I will run and I will win the primaries.” While this appears a righteous move, it could have a disastrous impact on the opposition as their primaries loom in February. Henrique Capriles Radonski is the current frontrunner to win those and take on Chávez in October 2012. However, López’s newly announced candidacy could split the vote in an already fragmented opposition.
“This is absolutely stupid,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a local political analyst and president of polling firm Datanalisis. “The people may favor López but they have to avoid any risk [of his being ineligible for office] so they will not want to vote for him in the primaries.”
Lopez is charged with corruption but was never tried. The nature of the charges have led many to suspect that the move is an entirely political one.
The opposition also suffered this week as anti-Chávez television station Globovisión was fined a whopping $2.1m—7.5% of its gross revenue last year—for its coverage of month-long, fatal prison riots in June which the government claim “fomented anxiety” as well as politically-rooted “hatred and intolerance.”
Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the network, called the fine an “attack by a government that has only fear of freedom of expression.” Critics suspect that the fine is aimed at ultimately bankrupting the network before elections next year. Many of the country’s media have taken a softer line against Chávez since RCTV, another major network, was taken off air in 2007 for its support of the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez.
Away from Chávez’s political theater and opposition-bashing, the country’s economic growth is expected to be up 5% next year, slightly higher than the 4% predicted for the end of 2011. However, inflation is expected to stay above 20%—one of the highest figures in the Americas. Annual inflation for the 12 months to September was 26.5%. Inflation this year so far is at 20.5%.
As elections loom, however, the government is to increase spending by 46% next year, compared to 2011. The government is budgeting $69.3 billion, most of which will go into social programs that Chávez hopes will boost votes ultimately as supporters lament power outages, high crime levels and the possibility that their Comandante will not survive another term in power.
“This budget is like a salute to the flag of the country,” Boris Segura, a Latin America strategist at Nomura told Reuters. “I am expecting growth of 3.5%... Given the cumulative damage to the economy through expropriations, the currency controls, etc, strong expenditure growth is not going to have the same impact on economic activity as five years ago.”
The budget announcement was interrupted by Chávez landing back in Venezuela, another sign that it is he that is very much the face of government in this maverick Latin American nation.