Chávez cancer scare stokes uncertainty

| Feb. 23, 2012 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Financial Times //pdf1//

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who earlier this week said he would return to Cuba for surgery, has admitted that the newly discovered lesion in his pelvis is likely to be cancerous, further heightening political uncertainty ahead of October’s presidential elections.

Speaking on state television late on Tuesday, Mr Chávez, 57, who until this week had insisted he was “fully recovered” from cancer that was first diagnosed last year, said: “No one can say ... if this new lesion is malignant. However, there is a high probability that it is.”

He continued: “I’m not going to be able to continue with the same rhythm ... I’m a human being. I’m not immortal.” The admission has cast further doubt on Mr Chavez’s ability to run in the October 7 elections. “Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped by anybody or anything,” he added.

His challenger, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who has taken pains to steer his campaign’s focus away from the president’s health and on to issues such as unemployment and soaring crime, said: “I wish my rival a successful operation, a prompt recovery and a long life.”

The centrist governor of Miranda state won the opposition primaries earlier this month on a turnout of 3m voters, twice the number expected, which gave the opposition a momentum not seen in Venezuela since Mr Chávez took power in 1999.

Critics have said Mr Chávez should name a temporary replacement while he is undergoing treatment in Cuba. This would be a major move for the president who has styled himself as the face of Venezuelan government during his 13-year tenure, with no clear successor.

Analysts say one leading contender is Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and a staunch ally of Mr Chávez. Mr Cabello has his own personal battle with Mr Capriles as he lost the governorship of the state of Miranda to the opposition leader in 2008 elections.

However, vice-president Elias Juaua, who is constitutionally charged with taking over should Mr Chávez be incapacitated, said there was no need for anyone to step up to the plate as the president was with the “full faculties to be in charge of the government”.

Bonds have rallied on the news, as investors have bet on the increased probability of a more market-friendly administration coming to power Venezuela. The country’s total issuance last year surpassed the rest of Latin America combined, as the government has funded social programmes which critics say is just a method of buying votes.

Government supporters, who only last weekend had decried opposition rumours of Mr Chavez’s ill-health as a “dirty war by scum”, called for calm.

Andrés Izarra, information minister, said: “Our message is for unity and faith that President Chávez will triumph over this latest obstacle life has put in his way ... His connection with the people will help him overcome any health problems.”