Hugo Chavez

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a country riven by political strife, Venezuela’s military often has served as the arbiter of power. It has launched coups and frustrated them and dispatched soldiers to guarantee stability, distributing food, fighting crime and securing oil fields.

Now with President Hugo Chavez battling for his life, the stance of the 134,000-strong armed forces again will be crucial.

Divisions within the military have clouded attempts to determine who it might support among Chavez loyalists or if it would side with the opposition.

Experts and former military officers agree that the governing duo of Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has been unable to fill the leadership vacuum created by Chavez’s five-week absence and silence. Without a commander in chief, there is no one to ensure unity or guarantee continued loyalty through promotions and retirements.

The military, like the rest of the country, is in limbo, awaiting the outcome of Chavez’s fourth cancer surgery.

If Chavez dies or otherwise leaves power, the country’s constitution requires an election be called within 30 days to replace him, which could unleash a power struggle.

The front page of a Venezuelan newspaper features a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama with a headline reading in Spanish, “Obama: I won!” at a newsstand in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday.
Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — From Caracas to Havana to La Paz, President Barack Obama’s re-election victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief by many on Latin America’s left, though others cautioned that the U.S. leader had not made the region a priority during his crisis-buffeted first term and was unlikely to do so in a second.

In Cuba, state-run news website CubaSi called the outcome a victory for the lesser of two evils, saying: “U.S. elections: the worst one did not win.”

“The news of Barack Obama’s triumph in yesterday’s general elections in the United States was received with some relief and without great optimism,” CubaSi wrote.

On the streets of Caracas, some said they worried that a Romney win would have brought a much harder line against leftist leaders such as their own President Hugo Chavez, and that they hoped another four-year term for Obama would bring relatively peaceful U.S.-Latin American ties.

“The other guy would have cut off relations with Venezuela,” said Cesar Echezuria, a street vendor selling newspapers emblazoned with front-page photos of Obama celebrating. “It would have been a disaster for Venezuela if Obama had lost.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has not commented since Tuesday’s vote, but he raised eyebrows during the campaign when he said that if he were an American, he’d cast his ballot for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney. Despite years of strained relations between Chavez and Washington, the United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.

President Raul Castro’s government is also often critical of the American president, but under a Romney administration it might have faced unwelcome rollbacks of Obama policies that relaxed restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and increased cultural exchanges.
The U.S. remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has recently taken its place.

During the presidential debates, Romney had called Latin America a “huge opportunity” for the U.S. economically. The region, however, was far from a hot topic in the election and seldom garnered mentions by the candidates — although one pro-Romney television ad in Florida had played up Chavez’s pro-Obama comments.

Ahead of the vote, some commentators in Latin America had groused that Obama and Romney were so similar in foreign policy stances that the result didn’t matter much. A recent front-page cartoon in Argentina’s Pagina12 newspaper summed up such complaints, showing a conversation between two bearded men. One remarked: “What difference is there between Republicans and Democrats?” The other answered: “Both bomb you, but the Democrats afterward feel just a little bit bad about it.”

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, left, and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez speak during the welcome ceremony for a summit by the eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance bloc, or ALBA, at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday Feb. 4, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez has never been one to share decision-making authority. Now, the voluble socialist strongman and acerbic critic of the U.S. may have no choice but to designate a successor.

His announcement that he will go to Cuba within a week to remove a growth that he says is likely malignant could not come at a worse moment for the leader who is working to transform Venezuela with what he calls “21st century socialism.”

With a tight re-election campaign brewing for the president, analysts said Wednesday that Venezuela could be thrown into turmoil because Chavez has resisted grooming a successor during his 13 years in power.

The result is a power vacuum that his camp will be hard-pressed to fill, especially if he is unable to campaign for the Oct. 7 elections or wins and then becomes physically incapable of governing.

“I promise I will fight without respite for my life,” the 57-year-old Chavez tweeted Wednesday.

Carmen Rondon, a 65-year-old nurse, was with a small group of Chavez supporters gathered at a corner of Caracas’ Plaza Bolivar under a sign saying “Forward, Forward, Commander.”

“We are praying together to the all-powerful for his recovery,” Rondon said. “We have faith that it will turn out well and he will overcome it like the first time because he is a strong man physically and humanly.”A day earlier, Chaveze conceded in sharing his bad news that he could be out of action for weeks. Under the circumstances, it would be Herculean to be able to simultaneously run a government, fight to stay in office and battle cancer.“I’m not going to be able to continue with the same rhythm,” he told state TV by telephone late Tuesday. He said he would need to “rethink my personal agenda and take care of myself, confront what must be confronted.”

Chavez did not mention who might replace him during an absence that cancer specialists say could last weeks if the leader has to undergo radiation treatment, as he himself said he expected. Chavez said the same doctors who removed a baseball-size cancerous tumor from his pelvic region in June would be operating on him.

He denied rumors the cancer had spread aggressively, but also said his doctors don’t know if the new two-centimeter (one-inch) lesion they found over the weekend is malignant.

The former paratrooper met Wednesday with his inner circle, with a central topic bound to be how to combat the opposition’s presidential candidate — Henrique Capriles, an athletic 39-year-old state governor.

The president of the Chavez-controlled National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, told reporters that Chavez remained the ruling party’s candidate.

“There is a false belief that associates cancer with death,” he said. “That’s not how it is, because you can overcome it with love, and the president has a bounty of that.”

Chavez is expected to travel to Cuba on Friday or Saturday, Cabello said.

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, said Chavez is now, finally, heeding medical advice after insisting on maintaining a physically demanding schedule of travel and marathon speeches.

But is he also listening to political advice about naming a successor?

“The key question is whether he is beginning to pay attention to advice from all those forces, ranging from family members to political operators, telling him to come forward with a succession plan,” Corrales said.

There are no obvious choices, since Chavez has constantly demoted anyone who could outshine him, Corrales added.

During his periods of convalescence last year, Chavez delegated some administrative duties to Vice President Elias Jaua and to his planning and finance minister, Jorge Giordani.

But Jaua apparently has lost favor since then, along with another longtime member of Chavez’s inner circle, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. Both still hold their posts, but Chavez recently demoted them by choosing them as his party’s candidates in gubernatorial elections next year.

One possible stand-for the president is his older brother, Adan, governor in Chavez’s home state of Barinas. The military, from which Chavez sprung, also could provide someone to fill in for the president.

“It could very well be that this is going to be a military-brokered succession, not unlike Egypt,” said Corrales. “At the first sign of chaos we could see the military indirectly or even explicitly playing a big role.”

One powerful close confidant of Chavez likely to play a leading role is Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a former intelligence chief named as defense minister last month by the president.

The United States, which has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since 2010, takes a dim view of Rangel Silva. He is one of four members of Chavez’s inner circle who Washington put on its Foreign Narcotics Kingpins list in 2008, accusing them of helping drug gangs and supplying leftist Colombian rebels with arms.

Still, even many fervent supporters of Chavez, whose political backbone is Venezuela’s poor majority, have doubts that he would choose a successor, even if his health significantly deteriorated.

“My ‘comandante’ isn’t going to delegate, even if he were in a wheelchair,” Maria Teresa Diaz, 65, said of Chavez.

Physicians consulted by The Associated Press said it was impossible to offer an assessment of Chavez’s health based on the limited information provided Tuesday by the leader, who had four rounds chemotherapy from July to September.

But some said finding a malignant tumor in the same place one was removed less than a year ago was not a good sign.

“A relapse within a year means the tumor is very aggressive,” said Dr. Sebastian Quintero, a leading Colombian oncologist.

Printed on Thursday, February 23, 2012 as: Chavez' surgery throws election into uncertainty

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned private banks on Sunday that he will consider nationalizing any that refuse to finance agricultural projects promoted by his government.

Banks are required by law in Venezuela to provide at least 10 percent of their lending to finance government development projects.

“The private banks that do not comply with the constitution and their duty, well, I do not have any problem nationalizing them,” Chavez said during his weekly radio and television program. “We must ensure the constitution and laws are complied with!”

Chavez charged that the rules aren’t being followed by some of Venezuela’s biggest private banks — Banesco, Banco Mercantil and Banco Provincial, which is controlled by Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.

Chavez singled out the president of Banesco, Juan Carlos Escotet, ordering him to lend more to Venezuela’s cash-strapped farmers.

“If you cannot do it, give me your bank,” Chavez said, prompting applause from a crowd of government officials and supporters.

A bill approved last year by Chavez’s allies in the National Assembly describes banking as a “public service” and gives the government the authority to declare banks to be of “public utility,” which paves the way for state nationalizations.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez kisses a Venezuelan flag after greeting supporters at a balcony of Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 4, 2011. Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba on Monday morning, stepping off a plane hours before dawn and saying he is feeling better as he recovers from surgery that removed a cancerous tumor.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — In his monthlong fight against cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has placed utmost importance on secrecy, carefully offering only scraps of information about his condition.

Now, as he begins planned chemotherapy in Cuba, Chavez appears to have found the perfect place where he can tightly guard details of his illness and keep the prying eyes of the news media far away.

The Venezuelan leader first underwent surgery in the island nation on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region. He returned Saturday night, saying he would be starting a “second phase of treatment.”

Typical of the cone of silence Chavez has lowered over his health problems, he hasn’t said how long the chemotherapy is likely to last, and there was no immediate confirmation from either Cuba or Venezuela that the treatments had in fact begun.

Chavez, 56, had said he would begin the treatments in Havana on Sunday to ensure cancer cells don’t reappear. He has also said he has been open about the details of his medical condition.

Maria Teresa Romero, professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela, said controlling information about his illness is important for Chavez to maintain both his hold on power and an image of strength at home.

“The secrecy, the trust is assured [in Cuba],” she said, “which is something that wouldn’t be assured if he were treated in Brazil, for example, or here in Venezuela. It would be much more difficult to keep secret everything they are going to do him.”

Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba from 2001 to 2004, said Chavez is likely receiving the same sort of protections and accommodations that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself would expect. Hare was also the deputy head of mission for the British Diplomatic Service in Venezuela from 1994 to 1997.

“Everything there will be arranged as if a member of the Castro family were being treated — strict secrecy, encrypted communication with Venezuela, transport, etcetera, just as if a favorite son had returned,” Hare said.

“Just as there is no accountability for the subsidies that Venezuela provides Cuba, the political relationship is based on shared commitments and understandings between the leaders that are never subjected to institutional scrutiny.”

On top of that, Hare said, “non-Cuban specialists could be more easily flown in to Havana than in the countries with a free and inquiring media.”

When Fidel Castro himself was gravely ill in 2006, a Spanish surgeon, not a Cuban, treated him.

One of the few messages that emerged from Chavez by early afternoon Sunday came via his Twitter account, where one of three notes offered congratulations for the start of the ALBA Games in Venezuela, an athletic competition involving countries in the left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance bloc.

“From my trench, battling for life, I congratulate the entire homeland for the marvelous inauguration of the ALBA Games! We will live!” the message said.

Chavez has been treated by a team of Cuban and Venezuelan doctors since doctors removed a cancerous tumor that Chavez said was the size of a baseball. He hasn’t said what type of cancer he was diagnosed with nor specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.

Government officials have deferred to Chavez to provide the information he chooses about his prognosis, while opposition leaders have demanded that the president come clean about what exactly his medical condition is. Three days before he left for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged for the first time that he expected to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Chavez conceals treatment in Cuba

Cuba’s Fidel Castro, left, and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez look at Granma state newspaper in an unknown location in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Granma)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s government postponed next week’s summit of Latin American leaders Wednesday, citing President Hugo Chavez’s health as he recovers from surgery in Cuba.

The decision to put off the July 5-6 meeting until later this year was announced shortly after new videos aired on state television showing Chavez chatting with Fidel Castro in Cuba, appearing lucid and talkative. Chavez’s televised appearance broke a long post-surgery silence that has prompted speculation about his health.

“The president is in the middle of a recuperation process and extremely strict medical treatment,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

As a result, it said, Venezuela has consulted with other governments and “made the decision to postpone” the gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders on
Margarita Island.

Chavez had been expected to host the summit on the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence from Spain. He promoted it as an event to lay the groundwork for a new regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, that would exclude the United States
and Canada.

Chavez has been largely out of sight since the government announced June 10 that he had undergone pelvic surgery.

Chavez has said the surgery removed an abscess, yet a lack of details about his condition has fed speculation in Venezuela that the president might be seriously ill.

He spoke once in a telephone call to state television two days after the operation, and appeared in photographs alongside both Fidel and Raul Castro that were published June 18.

Vice President Elias Jaua said Chavez was on top of his duties and worked on military issues and other matters Wednesday. He did not provide other details about Chavez’s health, nor say when he was expected to return home.