Chavez supporters rally, pray for their "comandante"

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2011 11:33 AM
Chavez supporters rally, pray for their "comandante"

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez prayed and rallied on Sunday for the speedy recovery of a man whose revelation of cancer treatment has rocked the country dominated by him for more than a decade.

In bread-shops and bars, streets and homes across the volatile South American OPEC member, there is only one topic of gossip and debate: just how bad is Chavez's health?

On a day usually revolving round Chavez's weekly "Alo Presidente" show -- hours-long TV soliloquies to tell stories, sing songs, nationalize companies or bait foes -- loyalists instead held a Roman Catholic mass and march for their man.

Chavez is receiving treatment in a Cuban hospital after surgery June 10 to remove a cancerous tumor.

No word has been given on when he might return.

"He is going to emerge victorious. We all ask God to give him health and strength," said pensioner Irma Santander, 76, wearing the red shirt of Chavez die-hards.

The 56-year-old socialist, one of the most globally recognizable faces thanks to his flamboyant anti-Americanism and self-styled domestic "revolution," waited until June 30 to admit he had cancer.

Only Chavez, his doctors and closest allies know if the malignant cells have spread or been stemmed, with speculation he may have colon cancer and face months of chemotherapy.

The implications are immense: Chavez has no obvious successor, and an opposition browbeaten by him since his first election win in 1998 is sensing a chance in next year's vote.

Opposition leaders and supporters are trying to avoid any accusations of exulting in his misfortune.

But they are nevertheless angry he has not named a temporary successor during his nearly month-long stay in Cuba and are quietly excited about the specter of a power change.

"I feel a real dilemma inside. I hate what he's done in Venezuela and I've always opposed him," said housewife Jenny Rodriguez, at a posh hilltop sports club right opposite a slum in a typical example of Venezuela's social divide.

"But I don't wish death or physical suffering on anyone, that would be wrong before God. I'd prefer him to get better -- then lose the election fairly, as he would anyway."

Even if he recovers perfectly, Chavez's health crisis already looks like a game-changer for the nation of 29 million people. It has exposed the lack of replacements, galvanized the opposition and dented his aura of invincibility.

Anxious allies insist their 'comandante' remains an active president and there is no need to temporarily name Vice President Elias Jaua, who is the face of government at home.

The constitution requires a delegation of powers to the vice president if there is an "absence" of 90 days, or 180 if the assembly uses its prerogative to extend that period.

But officials say the clock has not started running because Chavez is still signing decrees and giving instructions to ministers, some on trips to Havana.

Latest images of Chavez -- released by state media in a slightly surreal drip-drip of photos and footage reminiscent of Cuba's handling of former president Fidel Castro's illness -- showed him walking but pale. (http://bit.ly/irxzBm)

There was no detail when Chavez might be home.

"He will come when his doctors say it is time," Jaua told Reuters at preparations to mark the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence from Spain, a celebration on Tuesday that Chavez would dearly love to attend.

Chavez's health saga has displaced from the front pages a litany of issues facing his government, from power blackouts and uncontrolled crime to jail riots and housing shortages.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Jackie Frank)