The disclosure, after months in which Chavez insisted that he was cancer-free, prompted Venezuelans to wonder Wednesday whether he would be able to sustain a high-energy campaign of the type that has characterized his rule over the past 13 years. Some political analysts even speculated that he might be forced to drop out, creating a power vacuum in a country where the president’s personality-based reign has meant there is no logical successor.
“It creates a very complicated and uncertain political situation that I think helps the opposition in a really unprecedented way,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “It’s Chavez and his personality and his charisma that have held his movement together.”
The president’s delicate health returned to the headlines after Chavez said he will soon return to Cuba for surgery to remove what he called “a lesion” that could be malignant.
“If it turns out to be malignant, well, that opens a new phase of radiation therapy that would be more focused,” Chavez said. “That will stop me, stop me, of course.”
His comments in the phone interview, along with an earlier announcement Tuesday, come at a difficult time for the ailing 57-year-old leader. The populist firebrand, who delights in taunting the United States, is in his toughest of three reelection battles.
This time, his opponent is a popular governor, Henrique Capriles, who has shown himself to be adept on the campaign trail. At just 39, Capriles presents an image of youth and vigor that stands in increasing contrast to the picture of a president hobbled by serious illness.
On Feb. 12, more than 3 million voters turned out to overwhelmingly select Capriles as the opposition’s candidate for the October elections from a field of anti-Chavez foes. His emergence has flustered Chavez, who has referred to Capriles as “a low-life pig” and “the loser” and depicted him as a pawn of the United States.
“The contrast between the two couldn’t be more dramatic: a young, telegenic Capriles against Chavez, who looks worse all the time,” Arnson said. “This can only help the opposition on the media front.”
The president’s condition also highlights the inherent weakness of a government in which Chavez’s power is unrestricted and uncontested, said Demetrio Boersner, a political analyst in Caracas. “All the powers are concentrated in his hands, so if he’s out, then the whole system starts to weaken,” Boersner said.