Chavez Ruling From Cuba Feeds Questions on Leader’s Health

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference at Planalto Palace in Brasili on June 6, 2011. Photographer: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelans, who in the past decade have grown accustomed to watching Hugo Chavez make national policy in near-daily television appearances, must now get used to him governing from a hospital bed in Cuba.

Since traveling to the communist island June 9 and undergoing unannounced surgery to remove a pelvic abscess, the normally hands-on leader has stayed out of the spotlight, making a single telephone call into state-run television. That’s raised questions about the true state of his health after other medical problems this year, and is forcing friends and foes alike to ask who’s in charge of South America’s biggest oil producer.

Chavez, 56, was last seen in public June 9 walking down the steps of his airplane in Havana with a metal crutch. The former paratrooper said he injured his knee while jogging last month, adding that stress had been building on the joint since his younger days playing baseball and jumping out of airplanes.

“I’m not sure he can sustain this for weeks, appearing by phone once in a while,” Daniel Kerner, an analyst for the Washington-based Eurasia Group, said in a phone interview from Buenos Aires.

Chavez told Telesur network by phone June 12 that he decided to seek treatment in Cuba, the final stop in a tour of allied governments in Latin America, after feeling pain in his abdomen while in Brasilia and Ecuador. He gave no estimate about how long his recovery would take, saying only that his injury was “delicate” and that there’s “no reason to hurry” home.

‘Suspicious’ Illness

Kerner said the self-declared socialist revolutionary’s natural instinct would be to try and bounce back quickly from any illness like former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner did in September when he attended a rally a day after having a stent implanted to unblock a clogged coronary artery. The fact Chavez didn’t do so is “suspicious,” Kerner said.

Government officials including Vice President Elias Jaua have downplayed the possibility of more serious medical concerns, and point to a presidential decree published this week in the Official Gazette raising the country’s debt ceiling by 83 percent as proof that Chavez remains in charge from Cuba.

Chavez is in “full process of recovery,” Finance Minister Jorge Giordani said on state television today.

Jaua, who was agriculture minister before being tapped by Chavez to become vice president last year, rejected calls by the opposition that he temporarily fill in for his convalescing boss.

“I’m a man of honor, forged in values of loyalty,” Jaua, 41, said June 14 in comments broadcast on state TV. “I will defend with my life President Hugo Chavez’s constitutional mandate.”

Doubts Persist

While Jaua said Chavez is recovering quickly, even supporters aren’t so sure.

“We are all worried because we don’t know who’s running the country,” Jose Gregorio Saad, a 41-year-old messenger, said in an interview in downtown Caracas. “Chavez is very strong, he hasn’t had any serious illness since he took over, but they should clarify things and speak to the people.”

Richard Cohen, a doctor specializing in internal medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital, said an abscess can form on the pelvis as a result of an infection in the bladder or appendix, and frequently arises after surgery. Chavez, speaking to Telesur, gave no cause for the pus formation, saying only that he was “lucky” it wasn’t malignant.

Presidential Elections

The health scare comes while Chavez is ramping up spending as he seeks a third consecutive term as president in elections next year.

Support for Chavez was near the lowest in eight years in a poll taken in March by Caracas-based Consultores 21. Even though economic growth accelerated in the first quarter as higher oil prices allowed Chavez to boost spending on the poor, the country’s 22.8 percent inflation rate in May was still the fastest among 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg.

Rising prices, and a 40 percent devaluation of the bolivar in January, has been eroding the buying power of Chavez’s working-class base. Voters are also angry about power outages that have persisted more than a year after Chavez declared a national emergency to fix the nation’s aging electricity grid.

The extra yield investors demand to buy Venezuelan government bonds instead of U.S. Treasuries widened 15 basis points today, more than any other developing nation, to 1,184 according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ index.

The opposition has seized on the health scare, saying it’s unconstitutional for Chavez to govern by remote control. In response, the Chavez-controlled National Assembly passed a resolution June 14 rejecting an opposition attempt to “imply there is a power vacuum” in the country.

“The president doesn’t lose his power even if he’s on the moon,” Iris Varela, a lawmaker from Chavez’s party, said during the debate.

Workaholic Pace

Chavez is a known to rarely take time off and sometimes calls into talk shows past midnight. Such a hectic pace may have contributed to his illness, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told Telesur June 12.

Since taking power in 1999, Chavez has spoken on TV an average of 43 minutes per day, and interrupted national broadcasting to address the nation 2,135 times, said Marcelino Bisbal, director of media studies at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas.

Since April, when speculation over Chavez’s health began to surface, his TV appearances have dropped to an estimated 10 minutes a day, Bisbal said.

Called Off

The president has also had to restrict his public activities due to illness this year. His tour of Latin America was originally scheduled for May but was called off just hours before his schedule arrival in Brasilia when he surprised his compatriots with news of the knee injury.

Chavez’s medical treatment abroad has historical precedent. In 1908, then President Cipriano Castro traveled to Germany to undergo medical treatment. In his absence his vice president, Juan Vicente Gomez, staged a military coup and Castro spent the remainder of his life in exile.

“I really hope the president comes out of this,” said Antonio Arocha, 54, a store manager in Caracas who opposes Chavez’s rule. “The last thing I want is for chaos to take over.”

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