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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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