Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking treatment in Cuba to aid his recovery from cancer, seven weeks after winning re-election in a campaign in which he told voters he was “totally free” of the disease.
The self-proclaimed socialist, who cut back public appearances after earning a third six-year term in October, yesterday sought permission from Congress to leave Venezuela and travel to the Communist island for a seventh time this year to undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Chavez, who has undergone three surgeries to remove two tumors since June 2011, arrived in Havana today, Cuban state newspaper Juventud Rebelde reported on its website.
Yields on Venezuela’s dollar bonds maturing in 2027 fell to the lowest since August 2008 as investors bet Chavez may not serve out a full term, said Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America fixed-income strategy at Jefferies Group Inc. Yields fell 34 basis points, or 0.34 percentage point, to 10.13 percent yesterday. The price rose 2.43 cents on the dollar to 93.32 cents, the highest since July 2008.
“The headline that Chavez now heads to Cuba for treatment should again trigger another round of expectations of regime change and supports the hypothesis that it was pain management during the campaign,” Morden said in an e-mail.
The former paratrooper was expected to attend an air show yesterday in Aragua state commemorating the 20th anniversary of an attempted coup to depose then-President Carlos Andres Perez, in which Chavez took part. Since defeating challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by more than 10 percentage points in the Oct. 7 vote, Chavez, 58, has cut down on his public appearances. He last appeared on television Nov. 15 during a meeting with his economic team, when he spoke for three hours.
Chavez, who consolidated his rule by nationalizing companies and using oil export revenue to fuel spending on social programs for the poor, began reducing his public exposure even before the electoral campaign finished. He cut his time in public by 76 percent to 879 minutes in October from 3,730 minutes in August, Barclays Plc analysts Alejandro Arreaza and Alejandro Grisanti said in a report. He’s been seen in public for just 495 minutes this month, they said.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Chavez was undergoing a complementary therapy and would be sworn in Jan. 10 for his new presidential term.
“As we all know, he is finishing up a difficult process for any human being, someone who passed through radiation therapy,” Villegas said. “Even so, he didn’t pay attention to those who told him not to campaign. He got involved in his campaign, we all saw him campaign and he won. He won the election with all the presumed limitations from going through radiation therapy.”
While Chavez didn’t say how long he’d stay in Cuba, Venezuelan law requires the president to seek permission from the National Assembly for any absence longer than five days.
“I’ve been carefully watching over my health and jealously carrying out the treatment plan ordered by my medical team,” Chavez wrote in a letter read on state television yesterday by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. “It’s been recommended to me that since it’s been six months following my last treatment, that I begin a special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy that along with physiotherapy will continue to consolidate the process of recovery.”
The manner in which Chavez announced his trip will fuel speculation that his health is worse than he’s letting on, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
“You’d anticipate that if he really were doing well he’d want to show that publicly,” Farnsworth said in a phone interview from Washington. “It’s difficult to know what’s really going on because this is probably the tightest kept state secret in Venezuela.”
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment is unlikely to be a treatment for cancer, said Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington. It’s more likely to be used to treat any lingering effects from radiation or surgical healing, he said in a phone interview. Pishvaian hasn’t treated Chavez.
“It increases oxygen delivery to tissues as they heal themselves, to enhance healing,” Pishvaian said. “It is not simple at all -- it is a high-tech chamber. Even in Washington, only one or two hospitals have a hyperbaric chamber.”
Chavez first told Venezuelans he had cancer in June 2011 after undergoing surgery in Cuba to drain an abscess from his pelvic area during which he said doctors discovered a baseball- sized tumor in the same area. The tumor was excised in a subsequent operation, Chavez said, without specifying the exact location or type of cancer.
After four bouts of chemotherapy, he returned to Cuba in February for a third operation after his medical team discovered a second tumor and underwent several rounds of radiation therapy over the following months. In July he said he was “free, totally free” of illness, echoing words he said in October 2011 after completing chemotherapy treatment.
Under Venezuelan law, if Chavez is too ill to serve during the first four years of his term, the vice president assumes the presidency for 30 days while elections are held. If he can’t serve the final two years, the vice president can finish out the term. If his health fails between now and being sworn in for a new term Jan. 10, Congress President Cabello would assume power while elections are arranged.
Chavez on Oct. 11 appointed his longtime Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as vice president in a sign that he’s grooming a successor should his health fail, said Farnsworth.
“If it really weren’t serious he wouldn’t be doing that because he doesn’t want to create potential challengers to the throne,” Farnsworth said. “That’s an implicit admission from Chavez that, without putting a timeline on it, it is pretty serious.”
Chavez said Oct. 20 that his health had restricted him to campaigning at about 10 percent of his capacity.
“I went into the ring to box with my left arm tied behind me and one foot restricted,” Chavez said Oct. 20 on state television during a ministerial meeting in Caracas. “I boxed for about 15 rounds like that. Our people did a great job to make up for my vulnerabilities that were evident in some cases.”
If Chavez is absent from the country for a prolonged period of time it could impact regional elections scheduled for Dec. 16 in which he’s seeking to win gubernatorial seats from his opponents, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. Chavez picked former Vice President Elias Jaua to run for governor in the state of Miranda against Capriles as he seeks to neutralize his former challenger’s chances of remaining the opposition’s de facto leader, Leon said.
“Chavez’s physical absence could reduce Jaua’s electoral prospects since he’s not a charismatic leader but rather a confidant of Chavez who’s propped up by his closeness to the president,” Leon said. “That the president should travel to Cuba in the middle of an electoral campaign reveals that Chavez has a complicated situation regarding his illness.”
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