Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez typically gives hours of televised speeches a week but for two weeks he has disappeared from public view, undergoing an emergency operation in Cuba and prompting swirling speculation in the country’s political class about who might succeed him should he die.
The government has treated the president’s departure since June 10 as a state secret, providing scant details about his condition. What Chavez’s closest associates have publicly said has only fueled speculation about the health of the man who has so dominated politics in his 12 years in power that no one successor has ever emerged, even from within his populist Bolivarian movement.
“The world is waiting and accompanying President Chavez in this journey, which is a battle to definitively reestablish his health,” Nicolas Maduro, the foreign minister, said in a statement released late Friday afternoon by the state’s Bolivarian News Agency.
Maduro called on Venezuelans to provide Chavez with “human, heartfelt” support and “the most authentic love that ends with the reestablishment of his health so we can have him in Venezuela.”
The departure of Chavez for so long, particularly from the airwaves that he commandeers frequently in Venezuela, has prompted a heated debate over who would, or should, be in charge of the country. In a government that political analysts say is filled with yes-men who rarely question his decisions, Chavez’s illness has exposed the lack of any reliable leader to replace him.
“He has been centralizing power during 12 years now, putting himself in the foreground as the only and indispensable leader,” Demetrio Boersner, a historian and former Venezuelan diplomat, said by phone from Caracas. “So right now, there is no personality within the governing party that seems like the logical substitute in case it would be necessary to replace him.”
The government’s official account is that Chavez began suffering from abdominal pain during a meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana and was rushed to surgery.
Chavez, who turns 57 next month, soon phoned Venezuela’s main state television station to say he was recovering and there was no “malignant” illness. Officially, the government said that Chavez underwent surgery for a “pelvic abscess,” which is pus in the abdomen brought on by infection or other causes. Government officials said the president continued to sign bills and govern from Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally.
“We don’t know what this pelvic abscess is about,” said Fernando Coronil, author of “The Magical State,” a book about pre-Chavez Venezuela. “He mentioned that there was some biopsy. There is no malignancy. But given the secrecy and given the delicate situation, we don’t know if that’s actually accurate.”
Since Chavez’s first explanation after the surgery, the only purported messages have been from the president’s Twitter account, the latest on Friday, when he sent a “big hug to my soldiers and my beloved people.”
His brother, Adan, said on Wednesday that Chavez was recuperating. He said the president would remain in Havana for 10 to 12 days, which would put Chavez back in Caracas in time for a previously scheduled summit of Caribbean nations.
“The president is a strong man,” his brother told state television.
The president’s political allies have been irritated by the speculation about Chavez’s illness in Venezuela’s mainstream news media and by the opposition, characterizing it as an effort to sow discord.
But the president’s adversaries question both the secrecy surrounding his prolonged absence and the legality of Chavez governing from Cuba.
“You cannot run a country via Twitter,” said Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas and one of Chavez’s most determined political foes. He said that in this “hour of confusion” Venezuelans are asking themselves who is legally in charge.
The Venezuelan constitution says the vice president would take the president’s place during a “temporary” absence. But Vice President Elias Jaua rejected the demands of some government foes that he be sworn in on an interim basis.
The president’s illness has also raised questions about who would replace Chavez should his health further deteriorate. The most powerful men at his side are Jaua, the congressman Diosdado Cabello, Maduro the foreign minister and a former vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel.
But Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Datanalisis polling firm and has been a close observer of the government, said that no one with Chavez’s charisma or ability to unite a broad political base has ever emerged.
“I don’t think Chavez has thought that something like this would ever happen,” Leon said by phone from Caracas. “Chavez has overshadowed everyone in his movement. And he has not permitted that other independent-minded leaders rise up.”
Leon, however, said that he believed that only a terminal illness would keep Chavez out of next year’s presidential race, when the former army paratrooper plans to run for his third six-year term. Leon, though, said that the infirmity that has sidelined Chavez may not help his image on the campaign trail.
“Remember, Chavez is a charismatic man and he wants to show he can overcome all adversity,” Leon said. “And an illness makes him seem more human, more vulnerable, and that is not good for a leader like Chavez.”
Special correspondent Adam Liebendorfer contributed to this report.