Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is set to undergo a third operation in his battle with cancer as he prepares to face the younger candidate of a newly unified opposition in October’s election.
Chavez said yesterday that a previously unannounced trip to Cuba on Feb. 18 to undergo medical tests showed a lesion of about 2 centimeters in diameter in the same area where a tumor was removed in June. It is “highly” probable that the growth is malignant, in which case it would require radiation therapy, he said.
Chavez had been preparing to begin campaigning for the Oct. 7 election as he looks to extend his 13-year hold on power in South America’s largest oil producer until 2019. While he may initially enjoy an increase in popularity from voter sympathy over his illness, the uncertainty over his true health condition will hinder his re-election plans, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
“Compassion could quickly turn into concern about the instability of having someone who is clearly not well in charge,” Shifter said in a phone interview. “His claim that he had cured the cancer is obviously not the case.”
The president spoke in public yesterday for the first time since Feb. 17 and after a columnist for El Universal, Nelson Bocaranda, said Feb. 20 that Chavez was flown to Cuba for medical tests to review the need for another operation.
Venezuelan bonds rallied yesterday on the prospect of a change in government and a reversal of policies that have fueled the region’s highest inflation rate and led to the seizure of hundreds of companies by the state.
“I totally deny that I have metastasis in the liver or that the cancer has spread throughout my body and that I’m dying,” Chavez said on state television alongside his brother and daughter. “There will be another surgery. I regret having to give this negative news during Carnival but I’ve been forced to due to the rumors.”
Chavez said that he’ll travel to Cuba again in the coming days for the operation and that he’ll be away from public view for some time while he recovers from the surgery.
Doctors treating cancer patients routinely re-examine the area of the original tumor for a sign of recurrence, said Dr. Kevin Staveley-O’Carroll, division chief for surgical oncology at Pennsylvania State University’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey.
“Whenever we remove cancers, we follow patients to see if the cancer would come back,” Staveley-O’Carroll, who is not involved in treating Chavez, said in a telephone interview. “When we follow them we look specifically in the area where the cancer was removed for a local recurrence. And then we’ll look throughout their body for signs of metastatic disease.”
He said a new lesion “could be scarring” from the previous surgery “or it could be recurrent cancer.” If tests after removal show the lesion is cancerous, “it’s considered a local recurrence and not distant metastatic disease.”
The yield on Venezuela’s benchmark 9.25 percent bonds maturing in 2027 fell 23 basis points, or 0.23 percentage point, to 11.66 percent yesterday in New York, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The bond’s price rose 1.38 cents to 82.88 cents on the dollar.
The extra yield that investors demand to own Venezuelan debt rather than U.S. Treasuries fell 31 basis points to 10.22 percent, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global index. While that’s the lowest since May 2010, it is still the highest among emerging markets after Belize and Pakistan.
The market may be unprepared for the volatility and potentially disorderly transition should Chavez’s illness force him from office, Boris Segura, a strategist at Nomura Securities International in New York said.
“Markets move on expectations and it’s likely to overshoot and overlook potential problems in Venezuela in the absence of Chavez,” Segura said in a phone interview. “It could be a very noisy, difficult transition.”
Chavez had two operations last year in Cuba after an undisclosed form of cancer was discovered in his pelvis in June. Since then, he has received chemotherapy and said that he is “free of illness.”
The opposition chose Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 39- year-old governor of Miranda state, to challenge Chavez in October after holding a primary election on Feb. 19. Capriles, who plans to maintain popular social programs while gradually unwinding state control over the economy, says that he wishes Chavez a long life to see the changes coming to Venezuela.
Chavez had increased his public appearances since returning from medical tests in Cuba in October, while his hair grew back after halting chemotherapy treatment. In January he spoke for 9.5 hours during an address to the National Assembly, his longest speech ever.
During the time that he was recovering from surgery in Cuba in June, Chavez signed laws from Havana and appeared in taped videos broadcast on state television.
The columnist Bocaranda, citing unidentified sources in Cuba, said that doctors have recommended that Chavez stop using steroids that may have made him appear healthier.
“The probability that President Chavez could not be a candidate has increased after this announcement,” Barclays Capital analysts Alejandro Arreaza and Alejandro Grisanti wrote in a note to clients. The election could also be postponed, though no later than the end of the year, they said.
Luis Vicente Leon, president of polling group Datanalisis, said that Chavez will have to take a step back from the campaign and if his illness makes him unable to run for re-election, hand pick a successor from a field that includes his brother Adan, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and head of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello.
“If the disease is critical and he can’t return to the campaign, he’ll have to pick a substitute and we also run the risk of elections not taking place in October,” Leon said by telephone from Caracas. “This brings up a slew of uncertainties that we can’t resolve until we know the magnitude of the disease and if he can return to the campaign.”
Chavez said yesterday that he’s not immortal and that regardless of his destiny, his socialist revolution would prevail.
“I’m human, I’m not immortal,” Chavez said. “No one should be alarmed or happy about this news, because regardless of my final destiny, this revolution has momentum and no one can stop it.”