Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s longest absence from public view since he first underwent cancer surgery 18 months ago is fueling speculation that his health is worse than he’s letting on.
Chavez, who is in Cuba to aid his recovery from an unspecified form of cancer, hasn’t been seen in public for 20 days nor has the government released images of the self-declared socialist leader since a live appearance on state television on Nov. 15. That surpasses an 18-day silence in June 2011, when doctors in Havana removed a baseball-sized tumor from his pelvic area. Unlike previous convalescences, he hasn’t made use of his Twitter account or called into television programs either.
The long silence is fueling a bond rally in South America’s largest oil producer, as investors boost bets that the president’s deteriorating health will prevent him from completing a third, six-year term set to begin in January. Chavez was re-elected in October after telling voters he was “totally free” of cancer.
“In a country like Venezuela which is used to having Chavez at the center of political dynamics his absence is significant,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan political analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. “The fact that he left the country without any videos, photos or farewell speeches is something to consider.”
Yields on Venezuela’s benchmark dollar bonds maturing in 2027 have fallen 82 basis points to 9.65 percent since Nov. 26, the day before National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello read on state television a letter by Chavez announcing his intention to travel to Cuba for several rounds of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The price fell today to 96.88 cents on the dollar after reaching 97.05 cents yesterday, its highest since March 2008.
The government didn’t say how long Chavez would be away or provide an indication of his state of health except to say he’s doing well and will return in time for his Jan. 10 inauguration. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a treatment that increases the flow of oxygen to tissue to enhance healing.
On previous trips to Cuba for treatment, Chavez has addressed the public from the airport tarmac before departing and even broadcast cabinet meetings from the Communist island.
Not this time however. About the only glimpse Venezuelans have had of their normally hyper-active president are a few resolutions he signed in the Official Gazette, including the last one, on Nov. 28, naming Electricity Minister Hector Navarro as a temporary caretaker in the place of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who traveled to a regional summit in Peru. The Information Ministry has also attributed to Chavez decisions like one from yesterday to provide a 2,000 bolivar ($465) Christmas bonus to 22,000 families left homeless by flooding.
Chavez’s family, while largely silent, has used social media to express its concern. His daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, posted an image on Twitter last month depicting an ant holding up a twig under the caption: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”
The Information Ministry didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment about the president’s absence from Minister Ernesto Villegas. An official, who declined to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly, said all official pronouncements will be made on the minister’s Twitter account.
Since defeating challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by more than 10 percentage points in the Oct. 7 election, Chavez has cut down his time in front of the cameras. He appeared or was heard in public a little more than 8 hours last month, down from more than 62 hours in August and more than 40 in September, Caracas-based newspaper El Universal reported Nov. 26.
More significantly, his only public appearance since the election was an Oct. 8 press conference, said Moya-Ocampos. The remainder of his appearances has been in tightly-controlled ministerial meetings broadcast by state television, he said.
Lack of Transparency
Venezuela’s opposition, while not opposing Chavez’s request for permission to take leave, has called for the government to provide more information about his health.
“When you don’t speak with clarity, with transparency, the speculation begins,” Capriles, who is campaigning for re-election as governor of Miranda state in December, said Nov. 28. “We have the right to know. If not, the rumors will begin.”
Brazil’s foreign ministry said it was still awaiting word from Caracas as to whether Chavez on Friday would attend a summit of the leaders of the South American trade bloc Mercosur in Brasilia.
“We’re waiting for indications but on previous occasions confirmations from President Chavez have come at the last moment,” Antonio Simoes, under-secretary for South America at the foreign ministry, told reporters in Brasilia.
An appearance in Brazil would dissipate some of the rumors, while a failure to show up will exacerbate them, said Moya-Ocampos.
“It had been expected that after the stress of the electoral campaign he was going to have a low key presence,” Moya-Ocampos said. “Not showing up at the Mercosur summit will clearly signify that something is wrong.”