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Chavez Allies Knew He Was Dying in December, Correa Says

July 29 (Bloomberg) -- Hugo Chavez’s allies knew he was dying last December, even as his government insisted he would recover in time to be sworn in as president earlier this year, according to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

Chavez suffered a lung infection after the operation and missed the inauguration scheduled for Jan. 10, triggering a constitutional crisis as the opposition called for the self-declared socialist to stand down. He was never seen in public again and died in a Caracas hospital March 5.

His handpicked heir, President Nicolas Maduro, who won a subsequent emergency election in April, said Jan. 20 that the former paratrooper’s health was improving and he would soon enter a new stage in his recovery.

In his first interview after Chavez’s death, Maduro told Telesur that the death of his mentor had come as a surprise.

“In spite of all these circumstances, what we never thought would happen happened that March 5 when President Chavez at 4:10 p.m. or 4:15 p.m. began a stage of irrecoverable deterioration,” Maduro said March 12. “We weren’t ready. How can anyone be ready to accept that Comandante Chavez won’t be with us anymore?”

‘Barely Human’

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski said March 11 that Maduro and the government lied to Venezuelans about the health and timing of Chavez’s death and accused his rival of using the emotion surrounding the death to boost his electoral chances.

Argenis Chavez, the late president’s brother, said the day after that the government never lied to the country and called Capriles’ questioning of when Chavez died “immoral” and “barely human.”

Correa’s comments may prove another test for Maduro, who has struggled to consolidate power after beating Capriles by less than 1.5 percentage points in April’s snap election, said Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

“It pretty much confirms what everyone knew already that given the fact Chavez had disappeared he was unlikely to be recovering,” Weeks said in a phone interview. “Coming from Correa, it will be virtually impossible for Maduro to deny. This sends a signal that the government is not necessarily trustworthy.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Charlie Devereux in Caracas at cdevereux3@bloomberg.net; Corina Pons in Caracas at crpons@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at asoliani@bloomberg.net.

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