Just How Sick Is Hugo Chávez? Depends Who You Ask

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez says he’s cancer-free and ready to rule another 20 years. But others say there’s reason to question both his health and political future. If cancer doesn’t end his presidency, next year’s October election may.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (YouTube)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (YouTube)

Under President Hugo Chávez, polarized Venezuela has become a hall of mirrors where truth tends to depend on who's doing the talking. But even by Venezuelan standards, the conflicting information being tossed around about the president's health is more than a bit perplexing.

Chávez insists he's cured, that there's not a single malignant cell left in his body. But others who claim direct knowledge of the situation insist otherwise – that not only is Chávez still sick, but his cancer has reached a terminal stage. Exaggerated or not, these versions drive home the point that in the run up to next October's crucial elections, no other story is more important for the oil-producing country.

"Everything revolves around President Chávez and his illness," says Óscar Schemel, head of a Venezuelan polling firm called Hinterlaces. "It's the big question facing Venezuelan politics. It's the element of uncertainty that triggers impassioned responses not just from Chávez's backers, but also from the opposition."

Although visibly affected by the medical treatment he has undergone, the president has begun making more and more public appearances, saying repeatedly that he will go on living and governing the country for the next 20 years. "Never again will they remove me from office," he said in mid November. "They the opposition were determined to see me go, but now, rather than leave in 2021, I'll go in 2031."

Still, opponents and even some of Chávez's former collaborators insist that his illness is much more serious than he's letting on. Among those making such claims is Roger Noriega, the U.S. government's former assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs, who says Chávez has just a few months to live.

"Sources who have given me privileged information and documents from inside the Venezuelan government indicate that Chávez's cancer is spreading faster than expected and could kill him before the presidential elections in October 2012," Noriega, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of America States, wrote in a recent column.

"Chávez has insisted on receiving low doses of chemotherapy to avoid long absences from the political scene during this fragile period," he added.

According to the diplomat, U.S. authorities had knowledge of Chávez's bout with cancer six months before he made the illness public. They also believe it is unlikely he'll end up competing in next year's election, Noriega wrote.

Earlier, Salvador Navarrete, one of the president's former doctors, declared that Chávez suffered from a very aggressive form of pelvic cancer. At the moment it was diagnosed, according to Navarrete, the president was given just two years to live. The doctor, who was forced to leave the country, said he was asked to go public by the president's own family, who want to see him step away from power in order to focus more on his treatment.

Chavismo without Chávez?

Even if he survives, it's not clear how Chávez will fare in next year's election. On the one hand, his skilled handling of the issue has earned the president a certain element of sympathy, which has given him a popularity boost in the polls. But the numbers don't necessarily translate into votes.

The opposition, in the meantime, has made real progress in forming a unified front. In February, it is expected to pick a single consensus candidate to challenge Chávez. "The opposition is much more competitive this time around than it was in the past," says political analyst John Madgaleno.

Also working in the opposition's favor is growing popular discontent. According to a survey done by Hinterlaces, 59% of Venezuelans disapprove of Chávez's handling of public security. More than half the population thinks he's failed when it comes to roads and transportation. Roughly 70% think he's been unable to control inflation, and 67% disagree with his handling of the electricity crisis.

"Next year's campaign is going to be very demanding and very exhausting. It remains to be seen what kind of campaign the president will be able to handle while suffering from cancer," says Madgaleno.

There's an argument to be made that without Chávez, there is no chavismo – that his vision for how Venezuelan should be organized will not survive beyond him. The constant skirmishes between different factions of his Fifth Republic Movement highlight its fragility.

If Chávez doesn't run, the movement may present Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolás Maduro in his stead. According to local press reports, Maduro would have the best shot of mobilizing the president's base. But he doesn't have the same charisma, or the same nationwide backing.

Other potential candidates are Elías Jaua, Chávez's vice president; and Adán Chávez, the president's brother. Adán Chávez currently serves as governor of the state of Barinas. A fourth possibility is Diosdad Cabello, a former vice president and current member of the National Assembly who has strong ties to the Movement's military allies.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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