Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who is running for re-election after battling cancer, signed off his longest-ever speech with a message to his opponents: “I’m back.”
Chavez, who spoke for more than 9 1/2 hours during his annual address to the National Assembly on Jan. 13, said yesterday that he’ll begin campaigning for a third consecutive term once his opponents choose a single candidate from six aspirants in a primary on Feb. 12.
The former tank commander last year reduced his almost-daily TV appearances after having surgery in June to remove a malignant tumor from his pelvic area. The speech on Friday was intended as a message that he’s regained his former energy and will be fit enough to campaign for the Oct. 7 election, said Marcelino Bisbal, director of media studies at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas.
“He wanted to demonstrate to the opposition and the country that he’s cured and is capable of enduring 9 1/2 hours there talking and without going to the bathroom,” Bisbal said in a telephone interview.
Chavez said yesterday he lost track of time during his address even though his medical team had advised him to talk for no longer than three hours. The speech is the longest Chavez has ever given, surpassing a previous record of about eight hours, said Bisbal.
Chavez has exploited popular religion by visiting churches and sanctuaries to thank God for his recovery in recent months, said Bisbal. Long speeches are also a way of cultivating a super-human image with his followers, he said.
In a speech in which he defended his record on tackling inflation and crime, Chavez adopted a conciliatory tone, saying he would accept an opposition victory and even take part in the ceremony to hand over the presidential sash to an incoming candidate.
In a rare example of interchange between the self-declared socialist and his opponents, he fielded questions from opposition lawmakers. In one exchange, Maria Corina Machado, one of six presidential candidates, said his speech didn’t reflect the reality of many Venezuelan women who struggle with shortages of staple products such as milk and the highest homicide rate in the continent. She also condemned his hostility to private industry, exemplified by the nationalization of more than a thousand businesses since he took power 13 years ago.
When Machado said expropriation is theft, Chavez said that unless she wins next month’s primary she’s “out of my league” to debate with him and that “eagles don’t hunt flies.”
Chavez’s support fell after he won a second term in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote, dropping to 42 percent in April 2010, according to Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis.
His approval rating has risen back above 50 percent as he increases his public appearances since finishing a course of chemotherapy, Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis, wrote in a column in El Universal yesterday. Still, the opposition may claw back some of those intended votes once it chooses a single candidate to rally behind, Leon said.