Venezuela’s Chavez Has Breathing Problems in Cancer Fight

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is experiencing a “severe” respiratory infection that is making it hard for the cancer-stricken leader to breathe less than a week before he is due to start a new term.

“Comandante Chavez has faced complications following a severe lung infection,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a nationally-televised statement last night. Chavez, who Villegas said must “strictly adhere” to his medical treatment, remains in a Havana hospital after undergoing a fourth cancer-related surgery more than three weeks ago.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro again described the 58-year-old leader’s recovery as “complex” yesterday after returning from an extended visit with Chavez. The government has not said what type of cancer Chavez has suffered from since June 2011. The president declared himself “cancer free” ahead of October elections that he won.

“Any time a cancer surgery leads to a lung infection it can be a significant risk to recovery and can be potentially life threatening,” said Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington. Pishvaian has not treated Chavez.

With Chavez scheduled to be sworn in for a third six-year term on Jan. 10, opposition leaders warned that any move to change constitutional procedures for the inauguration would be considered a “coup.” If Chavez can’t take office as scheduled, the head of the national assembly is sworn in and must call elections within 30 days, according to the constitution.

Inauguration Day

The current head of the assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said on Dec. 22 that the opposition should “forget about January 10” and that Chavez’s inauguration could be postponed. Cabello, a rival of Maduro, is expected to win re-election in an assembly vote tomorrow.

“We’ve seen that by talking about the continuity of Chavez’s government they’ve been openly talking about a theory that in my opinion is unacceptable because it doesn’t respect the constitution,” Ramon Jose Medina, the deputy head of the opposition alliance, said in a phone interview yesterday. “That would be a coup d’etat.”

If Chavez doesn’t appear Jan. 10, Cabello must decide whether it’s a “temporary absence” or an “absolute absence.” If doctors say Chavez needs more time to recover, Cabello can appoint himself as interim president for 90 days while Chavez convalesces. If he judges that Chavez will never recover then he must declare an absolute absence and call for elections within 30 days. In either case, Cabello should take the presidency on a temporary basis, Medina said.

Maduro Tapped

Chavez said on Dec. 8 that voters should elect Maduro to protect his legacy if his illness prevents him from remaining in office. Medina said the opposition is preparing itself for elections and will select a candidate by consensus to run against Maduro since there won’t be time to have primaries.

“Whatever they’ve decided on, we’re ready to defend the constitution,” Medina said, adding that the opposition would seek help from regional bodies such as Union of South American Nations and the Organization of American States if the government doesn’t adhere to the constitution.

Maduro and Cabello, speaking at a coffee-packing plant yesterday in Caracas, said they had just returned from Cuba where they swore an oath in front of Chavez to remain united. Cabello dismissed rumors of a rift between himself and Chavez’s anointed successor.

‘Transition to Socialism’

“Here we have all the ministers in a new stage, because 2013 will be a year of work,” Maduro said. “The only transition going on here is the transition to socialism.”

Venezuela’s bonds have gained as investors bet that Chavez’s health will force new elections and the possibility of a new government that would introduce market-friendly policies, said Bret Rosen, a Latin America strategist at Standard Chartered Plc in New York.

“If there is an election there is a non-trivial chance of some kind of change,” Rosen said in a phone interview. “If the president is healthy then the chances of an election are zero. If he’s incapacitated then there’s some possibility of elections which means some possibility of his party losing power.”

Yields on Venezuela’s 9.25 percent dollar-denominated bonds due in 2027 rose 3 basis points, or 0.03 percentage points, to 8.77 percent, according to date compiled by Bloomberg. The price fell 0.26 cents to 103.88 cents on the dollar. Prices yesterday reached their highest since Aug. 2007.

Maduro yesterday criticized opposition leaders and media outlets for spreading “false” rumors about Chavez’s health. Maduro called for unity and said that Chavez will be back in Venezuela “sooner rather than later.”