Venezuelans Rally in Caracas as Chavez Fights Cancer in Cuba

Supporters of President Hugo Chavez filled downtown Caracas in a rally for the 56-year-old socialist, who’s receiving treatment for cancer in Cuba.

Red-shirted marchers waved Venezuelan and Cuban flags and carried signs reading “Onward commander,” a popular government slogan of support. The demonstration was part of bicentennial celebrations culminating July 5. Chavez, who’s recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his pelvis, hailed backers on his Twitter account from Havana.

“I see you, hear you and live through you,” Chavez wrote on Twitter today. “Here I am doing my daily exercises and receiving this shower of love from the grand youth march. It’s the best medicine.”

Venezuela’s opposition has shown restraint since Chavez announced June 30 his cancer treatment in Cuba and has wished him a fast recovery even while questioning how long he can legally rule the country from abroad. Vice President Elias Jaua, who would replace Chavez were he to resign or be stripped of presidential powers due to his health or sustained absence, said no succession plans are being discussed.

Chavez told Venezuelans in a nationally broadcast speech on June 30 he was operated on twice in Cuba and won’t hurry his return during treatment. The self-professed anti-imperialist, who has run South America’s largest oil producer since 1999, has vowed to keep ruling from Cuba for as long as it takes.

Trips to Cuba

Cabinet members have been shuttling back and forth to Cuba for meetings with Chavez to discuss social programs and bilateral agreements in an attempt to show that he’s still in charge of daily activities.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who recently returned from a visit with Chavez, said in an interview with the Televen television network the president continues to recover well and that the cancerous tumor in his pelvic region was completely removed and hasn’t spread.

Venezuela’s state news service published photos of Chavez walking in a track suit in Havana on July 1 with Maduro and two of his daughters. Chavez looks thinner and pale in the pictures.

Maduro denied a report by the Barcelona-based newspaper El Periodico that said Chavez has colon cancer which has infected his abdomen and may have metastasized.

“The doctors removed the tumor completely and checked his organs, which are in perfect shape,” Maduro said. “It was a serious operation of more than six hours. I can say that as of today he’s recovering well.”

No Succession Talks

Chavez doesn’t need to provide all the details of his illness, and there has been no succession plan discussed because the president hasn’t been close to dying, Jaua said today in an interview in the newspaper El Universal. Chavez will run for a third term in next year’s elections, as the continuity of his socialist revolution depends on it, Jaua said.

The leading opposition candidate for president said he won’t press for Chavez to relinquish power during his recovery, and will continue with plans to defeat him at the ballot box next year.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of Miranda state, is favored in polls to win a February primary to select a coalition candidate to run against Chavez. Capriles said yesterday Venezuelan law allows Chavez to remain in Cuba for as long as he wishes, and that he hopes Chavez overcomes his illness. There’s no need for him to cede power to Jaua in the meantime, he said.

National Assembly Decides

“The president has the right to be absent for six months and can even do so for longer because, according to the constitution, it’s the National Assembly that decides,” Capriles said in an interview in Caracas. “I’m not making calculations based on Chavez’s illness. I hope he comes out of it and that my rival is able to compete.”

While criticizing the secrecy surrounding Chavez’s illness, Capriles and others are holding back from calling on the socialist leader to step down, fearing it may generate a backlash among voters and lead to divisions in the opposition coalition after it won a majority of votes in last year’s congressional elections.

Capriles, 38, said the government should release information about how long Chavez’s treatment will last and when he is likely to return to Venezuela.

The opposition politician spoke in an interview at a school in his constituency. He said the rumors that have swept the country in the time Chavez has been gone were the result of the government not releasing enough information about the president’s condition.

‘Lack of Clarity’

“The way in which the situation has been handled with disinformation and a lack of clarity opens up spaces for imagining lots of scenarios,” Capriles said. “Chavez has a right to get sick, but the country also has a right to know what his health condition is.”

In contrast to Capriles, a group of opposition academics, journalists and politicians led by Miguel Enrique Otero, editor-in-chief of the Caracas-based El Nacional newspaper, published an editorial today calling on Chavez to relinquish power.

“If we accept that the recovery will be slow and require specific conditions, it’s obvious that there will be a temporary absence which should be resolved as stipulated in the constitution, that the vice president takes over provisionally,” the statement said. “It’s the legal, political and human thing to do.”

Capriles had a 55 percent approval rating in a survey of 2,000 people taken by Consultores 21 from March 11 to March 25. His closest rival, Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, had 49 percent, while Chavez had 45 percent, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.24 percentage points.

Vice President Jaua told Chavez’s flag-waving young followers today amid politically charged salsa music blaring from speakers that their support is the key to the continuation of their leader’s revolution.

“Only you can assure that the revolution never dies,” Jaua said.

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