Oncologists who have been tracking Chavez’s health — and are familiar with the kind of treatments he describes — say he may be suffering from an aggressive tumor, possibly a sarcoma, that is resistant to chemotherapy.
“What that indicates to us is that the cancer has a relapse and that that cancer is very likely not a curable cancer,” said Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic. “For these types of cancers, you know, the best chance is the first chance. That is when you have the best option to cure.”
‘Chavez transcends life’
Little by little, in a way that is increasingly felt across Venezuela, there are signs that inside Chavismo — the powerful populist movement named after Chavez — some are beginning to at least raise the possibility of a Venezuela without Chavez.
In the Popular Tribune, the Communist Party’s newspaper, a recent column said Chavez’s condition “puts over the carpet — like it or not” — the possibility of his demise and how that would negatively affect Venezuela’s socialist transformation.
And in a meeting of Chavez’s campaign committee in late April, Wilmar Castro, who heads the planning commission for the campaign, openly spoke of the need to consider electoral scenarios. One included a campaign without Chavez as the ruling party’s candidate.
“The president has cancer,” Castro told other regional campaign chiefs. “It’s not just anything.”
Loyal allies such as Ramses Reyes, a former congressman and head of a leftist movement called Venezuelan Revolutionary Currents, said it has been hard to imagine a political arena absent Chavez.
“We could never fathom that this man of steel could be a human with defects, with the possibility of getting ill,” Reyes said. But Chavez’s followers, he said, now also believe that there is more to Chavez than his “physical presence,” that his philosophy would live on and keep his supporters united long after his departure.
“It could be that the man is replaced, but not the Chavez philosophy,” Reyes said. “What I mean is Chavez transcends life. Chavez is the symbol of the revolutionary process.”
Foreseeing a rocky transition
Lately, the talk of who would replace Chavez — if failing health forces him out before October or after the election should he win — has become a central issue in Venezuelan public life. Chavez’s having been such a powerful and omnipresent leader, with moderates having left government or been forced from service, makes for the likelihood of a rocky transition.
“If Chavez is not in a condition to be president, the leadership in his party is not well defined,” said Miguel Otero, editor of El Nacional, a Caracas newspaper that has aggressively explored the machinations inside Chavez’s movement. “It is not like Cuba, where Fidel has his brother. In North Korea, there is the son. Here there is no leader who can substitute for him.”
Analysts here say that if illness forces Chavez out before the election, the United Socialist Party would pick another candidate. If Chavez dies in the first four years of a second term, new elections would be called.
Those with political power include Adan Chavez, the president’s older brother, who introduced him to radical political thought and is close to Cuba’s leadership. There is also Vice President Elias Jaua, who cut his teeth at university protests, and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and union organizer.
Another loyalist is Diosdado Cabello, a tough former military man who joined Chavez, then an officer in the Venezuelan army, in an ill-fated coup attempt in 1992.
Marbella Pineda, 46, a die-hard Chavez follower who wore the movement’s red shirt at Monday’s rally, called those men “serious, focused and having all the support of the people.”
But when asked whether any could really replace Chavez, she let out a nervous laugh and said, “Not any of them.”