CARACAS, Venezuela — After his surgery in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rushed back home last week to restrain rivalries in his inner circle and confront both an energetic opposition and a series of domestic crises that have made Venezuela one of the continent’s most troubled nations.
His populist government has united behind him, promising to accelerate a self-styled revolution built on creating a socialist state, marginalizing opponents and forging alliances with governments opposed to the United States.
But nine days after Chavez publicly announced that Cuban doctors had removed a tumor, it remains unclear how active or effective the 56-year-old president will be.
A political insider who has been in contact with Chavez’s close associates said in an interview that the president had colon cancer but would not be undergoing chemotherapy in the short term.
Chavez has referred to his illness as “one of life’s ambushes,” and he has spoken about the “very difficult” hours after Fidel Castro told him in Havana last month that he had a malignant tumor. But he has not confirmed what kind of cancer nor discussed the prognosis, and it is also unclear whether he will return regularly to Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, for treatment.
Meanwhile, the hard realities of Venezuela today — a country rocked by drug-fueled violence, a struggling economy in the midst of a long oil boom, rolling electrical blackouts and a polarized political landscape — are underscoring the limitations of Chavez’s dominating one-man rule as his movement prepares for next year’s presidential election.
Jose Albornoz, once a close ally of Chavez, said that some of the president’s lieutenants are trying to shift toward a more radical line as everything from poorly run schools to faltering agricultural production exposes government incompetence and inefficiencies.
“The lack of effective governance leads to authoritarianism,” Albornoz said. A former lawmaker who in 2002 was among those who helped restore Chavez to power after a brief coup, Albornoz said Chavez’s fears of being unseated prevent him from delegating.
“The president does not confide in anybody — because of his own history, because of the conspiracies he has been involved in,” said Albornoz, who is secretary-general of the Fatherland for All Party.
Architect of a failed military uprising in 1992, Chavez relies on a coterie of ideologically driven men, many of whom have been with him since before he took office in 1999.
Though outwardly loyal to him, they come from different political currents, sometimes at odds with one another and sometimes beholden to different bases of support.
They include Elias Jaua, the vice president, who got his start as a university agitator; Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader; Rafael Ramirez, who controls the state oil company; and Diosdado Cabello, a tough disciple of the president who has served in various posts.
Less popular and lacking in charisma is the president’s older brother, Adan, who is considered a careful planner ideologically committed to upending Venezuela’s economic structure. Another powerful figure comes from the military, General Henry Rangel Silva, whom the U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 accused of assisting Colombian armed groups in their drug-trafficking operations.
With Chavez at the helm, these officials and other high-ranking leaders remain at his side, political analysts say. But in the days after Chavez announced that he has cancer, some of Chavez’s associates jockeyed for position as the realization quickly set in that the president might be forced to step down ahead of the presidential election, which is 17 months away.
“You begin to see rivalries,” Albornoz said. “We can say that Chavez’s illness has let loose the demons in the Socialist Party.”
In a speech before his brother’s return, Adan Chavez said armed struggle should not be ruled out as “an indispensable instrument to apply and develop the revolutionary program,” which some took as a message against rivals. And Cabello spoke about the dangers of people in the government falling “into temptation.”
“Many things have occurred during these 12 years — people who were believed to be extremely trustworthy, and they ended up in the garbage heap of the opposition,” he said.
With Castro, who is intimately familiar with conspiracies, at his side, Chavez decided it was best to head back to Caracas on Monday after being away almost a month.
“In that decision, there was total harmony between Fidel and Chavez,” said Eleazar Diaz Rangel, who as editor of the Caracas newspaper Ultimas Noticias has a conduit to high-government officials here. Rangel said Chavez is well aware that if he were perceived to be deteriorating physically, it could mean “a total change in the armed forces, in the community organizations, in the Socialist Party. There are rivalries there.”
The importance of the president to the Venezuelan government was crystallized in the improvisation and disorder of Chavez’s aides during his long absence and in the public outpouring of support for him upon his return.
“I do not think that this revolution goes anywhere without Chavez,” said Felix Gomez, 65, who says he favors sharply moving Venezuela toward rigid socialism. “There are good people with him. But is there a leader like Chavez, my friend? I do no think so. If that man goes away, I think this whole thing will come down.”
Carlos Romero, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, said none of Chavez’s lieutenants comes close to matching the president’s almost mystical connection with his base of poor Venezuelans, nor do they possess his ability to hold together disparate movements while marginalizing dissidents.
“That don’t have the same charisma; they don’t have the same power,” he said. “And they don’t have the same experience to control Venezuelan society.”
The government’s overriding objective now is for Chavez to secure a third six-year term in the next election or, if forced to relinquish his candidacy, ensure that a trusted hand-picked successor wins, analysts and those close to the administration said.
The continuation of Chavez’s “revolution,” he and his associates have said in recent days, means a deepening of a socialist project characterized until now by the nationalization of companies and seizure of farmland.
“A third government would accelerate this irreversibly,” said Diaz Rangel, the newspaper editor. “All the changes would be designed so that there is no going back.”