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Has Chavez’ Cancer Become a Political Liability?

Hugo Chavez is one of South America’s most notable neo-dictators with the charisma to match. Since 1999, Chavez has held title to Venezuela’s presidency and ultimate authority over all major decisions and announcements in the country. However, there is one thing he seems to remain powerless over: the fate of his battle with cancer.

On Monday, February 27, Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba to remove a seemingly malignant lesion in his pelvis where a large cancerous tumour was found in June of last year. This surgery marks the president’s third in just eight months. Though Venezuelan officials have not yet disclosed details regarding his exact condition, South American oncologists and gastroenterologists suggest that it is likely Chavez is facing an aggressive tumour. One that, despite his best efforts to brush it off as nothing serious, will require further medical attention and procedures in the midst of his electoral campaign.

For a man who has been the face of political power for over 13 years, his battle with cancer now poses a challenge to the public’s perception of Chavez’s “aura of invincibility.” News of his condition means that he will have undoubtedly to slow down his election campaigning for the upcoming Venezuelan elections in October. Moreover, it raises questions as to whether or not  the President is even fit to be in office for the next six years, should he win. The public’s once unwavering faith in his invincibility as a ruler may no longer hold for the months to come.  The purposeful lack of transparency regarding his condition raises questions as to how sick he truly is.

However, the 57 year old ruler has attempted to restore the public faith in his health.

“If the cancer is back, I declare it ‘squalid’ and it will be dealt with mercilessly and defeated,” he said, using a term he coined years ago to denounce Venezuela’s opposition.

Many still remain ever faithful and loyal towards their ailing ruler. Across the nation loyal supporters have shown their support and love as Chavez flew out for his operation. Hundreds of Venezuelans covered his SUV with flowers and a portrait of Jesus that read “I will heal you. Forward, commander!”

Even with all the outpouring support and attention, Chavez’s political longevity is no longer 100% certain. Especially since it seems like his competition, Henrique Capriles, is, at the very least, thought of as a viable ruler.

One can’t help but notice Capriles’ youthful vigor and charismatic appeal in contrast to Chavez’s now puffy face and balding head, the results of chemotherapy. Capriles, 39, is the right wing Democratic Unity Table’s candidate set to face Hugo Chavez in the upcoming October 7 presidential elections. Unlike Chavez’s authoritarian and provocateur persona, Capriles has portrayed  himself as “a public servant” and has been the governor of Miranda, one of Caracas’s most wealthy areas for several years. Despite his privileged background as a foreign educated lawyer, his policy aims advocate widespread education and welfare. For the Venezuelan public, he seems like a pleasant alternative and is likeable due to his non-confrontational and moderate discourse. While the opposition attempts to strategically denounce Capriles’ Jewish roots and portray him as a bourgeoisie sympathizer, he continues to garner support from both the left and right.

It’s still too early in the game to know for sure how the political race will end. Even if Chavez has cancer, he still calls the shots and does not plan on giving this privilege up anytime soon. After all, the man has repeatedly claimed that he plans to stay in office all the way until 2031. Let’s not forget that he already holds a strategic political advantage by controlling the country’s autonomous institutions, national electoral authority and army. Even the recently appointed defense minister has claimed that the military will not accept an opposition victory.

Yet the winds of change may be in the air for Venezuela. As Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, noted recently, “Venezuela is living with the unsettling effects of prolonged, one-man rule. Anything can happen.”



– Linda Sarvi

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