CARACAS, Venezuela — Two months have passed since Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez climbed the stairs of the presidential jet, blew kisses to his supporters and flew to Cuba to undergo his fourth cancer-related surgery.
Chavez hasn't been seen or spoken publicly since that departure to
Havana on Dec. 10, and the mystery surrounding his condition has
deepened while the government's updates have remained optimistic but
have lately offered few specifics.
Jaua, who visited Chavez in Cuba last week, said the 58-year-old
president has been making political and economic decisions. On Friday,
for instance, the government announced it is devaluing the currency.
Confidants including Jaua have recently said the president has
overcome complications including a severe respiratory infection
following his Dec. 11 surgery for recurrent cancer in his pelvic region.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez named as his potential
successor before the surgery, has said that the president should be able
to return home once his condition permits it.
When that might be remains unclear, and the long silence of a leader
who used to speak on television almost every day has led many
Venezuelans to wonder why he is unable to say at least a few words to
the country by phone.
Some analysts say they expect that sooner or later, Chavez's delicate health could make necessary a new election to replace him.
"The transition has already begun in Venezuela, and the election
campaign has also begun," said Tulio Hernandez, a sociologist and
professor at the Central University of Venezuela. "The transition has
also begun in people's heads. Sometimes, there are mistakes among
government spokespeople, who start to speak of Chavez in the past
Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello have recently
led street demonstrations where supporters have rallied around the
president chanting his name and holding photos of him.
If Chavez were to die or step down from the presidency, a new presidential vote would be called within 30 days.
The long silence has left many Venezuelans, including both supporters
and detractors of the president, on edge amid rumors and speculation.
"Whether we wanted to or not, it used to be inevitable to hear him,
see him, talk about him," said Emilia Torres, a university student who
supports the opposition. "Now he's disappeared. We haven't seen him in a
long time. We don't even know if he's really OK or not."
Chavez has undergone several cancer treatments in Cuba since June
2011, including surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He
hasn't revealed the type of cancer or the exact location where tumors
have been removed from his pelvic region.
During previous stints in Cuba, Chavez regularly kept in contact
through phone calls broadcast on television and messages on Twitter.
Now, those messages have been replaced by updates given by his Cabinet
The updates recently have been given less frequently, while government officials say Chavez's condition has slowly improved.
"I want them to tell us the truth. I don't want to keep seeing
ministers saying that El Comandante sends us regards," said Lenin
Colmenares, a street vendor who sells posters and photos with images of
Chavez. "I hope El Comandante himself will be the one to say it. Why
Colmenares said he hopes the president will be able to return. He
also said none of the other officials in his socialist movement can
compare to the charismatic leader.
"I'm for the revolutionary process, but if I support another one
(within Chavez's movement) it's only because El Comandante asked for
it," Colmenares said. "That man is unique."
Chavez, who counts 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar and
former Cuban leader Fidel Castro among his leading influences, first
took office in 1999 and was re-elected to a new six-year term in
October. Throughout his presidency, he has cultivated an image as the
sole leader of his Bolivarian Revolution movement.
Now, he has turned to Maduro and others to carry on in his absence.
"We're obviously at a crossroads," said Oscar Valles, a political
analyst and professor at the Metropolitan University in Caracas. He said
that during the past two months, "it's been hard for the predominant
circle within Chavismo to articulate leadership that can begin to
replace that of the president in this difficult transition."
There have been previous cases of leaders in other countries
vanishing from public view for long stretches due to health problems.
Fidel Castro, for one, has appeared in public only occasionally since
he fell ill in 2006 and formally stepped aside from the presidency less
than two years later.
In Nigeria, President Umaru Yar'Adua left the country for medical treatment in 2009 and died months later.
Venezuelan lawmakers voted last month to indefinitely postpone
Chavez's Jan. 10 inauguration. The opposition argued that was
unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court sided with the government and
ruled that the president could be sworn in before the court at a later
"I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying that what's happening in
Venezuela is historically unheard of," Valles said in a telephone
interview. "We've never before seen a political process where a term is