Chávez: everything okay (again)

| Feb. 28, 2012 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Financial Times

It’s déjà vu for Venezuela-watchers. Last June, President Hugo Chávez announced that he was suffering from cancer before returning triumphantly home from treatment in Cuba to immense support from his crimson-clad fans.

On Friday, Chávez left Caracas for Havana in an open-topped motorcade, his own vehicle plastered with an image of Christ. “I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said ‘Chávez, rise, it is not time to die, it’s time to live,’” he said.

With that exit, there is little doubt that there will be an equally jubilant return this week. The socialist maverick isn’t yet back but on Tuesday his Vice-President, Elias Jaua, announced that the newly-found lesion had been “totally removed” by doctors in Cuba.

It is difficult to take pronouncements on Chávez’s health seriously. Authorities in Venezuela have never disclosed what type of cancer the president has, saying only that the initial tumour was found in his pelvis. This is in stark contrast to, for example, the publicity surrounding former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s treatment for cancer as well as many other regional heads of state.

Confidence is also muddied by the weekend’s release of a stash of documents from the Stratfor private intelligence firm by Wikileaks. They paint a picture of bickering over Chávez’s health by doctors from across the globe.

Venezuelan bonds have been rallying since the beginning of this election year, with yields dropping sharply in the last few days since Chávez’s health appeared to worsen. Investors are betting on the increased possibility of a more market friendly government in Venezuela.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the young state governor who will take on the president in October’s election, is bolstering their hopes. During primaries this month [Feb. 12], Capriles won with 64 per cent of more than three million votes. The turnout was twice the size of what analysts were expecting.
The opposition, finally united after years of infighting and all-out attacks on Chávez, is now able to lurch forward with a momentum unseen in Venezuela since Chávez burst onto the political scene two decades ago.

Rather than attack Chávez directly, Capriles flatly refuses to talk about the president’s health and has kept a low profile since Chávez made the latest announcement. The new opposition leader is fighting a calculated campaign, knowing that he must not take the president on in order to persuade his way some 36 per cent of voters – so-called ni-nis (a Spanish expression meaning “neither nors”) – who are as yet undecided who to vote for.

It is the “ni-nis” that will decide October’s presidential election.