Chavez's Cuba convalescence whips up Venezuela

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 1:49 PM
Chavez's Cuba convalescence whips up Venezuela

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's continued absence in Cuba after surgery has laid bare his one-man dominance of Venezuelan politics and infuriated opponents hoping to dethrone him at next year's vote.

While there is no serious suggestion Chavez will not recover, his nine-day absence has reopened a debate over who, if anyone, could replace him in the ruling Socialist Party.

"The incident starkly underlines that after 13 years in power, Chavez still has no obvious successor with his immense charisma and unrivaled political talents, at least among his small inner circle," the UK-based LatinNews think-tank said.

Out of Venezuela since June 6, Chavez was wrapping up a regional tour in Cuba when doctors discovered a swelling on Friday. He had immediate surgery, postponing his return.

Rather than sympathize with Chavez's painful condition -- an abscess was removed from his pelvis -- foes accuse him of flouting the constitution, preferring Cuban doctors to Venezuelans, and letting affairs be run from Havana.

"Venezuela has been humiliated because we are governed from Cuba, be it by Chavez or by (Fidel) Castro," opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado shouted during an angry debate on the subject in Venezuela's parliament.

The socialist Chavez's admiration for the former Cuban president has been a point of honor for him since taking power in 1999, but a constant focus of criticism.

Despite his own frail health, Castro has been at his bedside, bringing books and films to his Venezuelan friend who has said he will back soon, within days.

With a presidential election due late next year, where Chavez is seeking re-election for another six-year term, all sides are trying to make political capital.

Vice-president Elias Jaua has temporarily replaced the usually omnipresent "Comandante" on the airwaves, dragging cameras round with him Chavez-style for live coverage during a trip to a "socialist" chocolate factory and other events.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has also been prominent, updating the nation on Chavez's condition.

"HAPLESS" MINISTERS

Opposition media have meanwhile been highlighting murders, power cuts that have brought a raft of unpopular new measures including fines for high consumers, and a jail riot that killed 19 people, to put pressure on the government.

"Chavez's senior cabinet ministers ... look slightly hapless in his absence," LatinNews added.

"None of them would appear to have the confidence of the public, starkly underlining the concentration of political power and authority in the president."

Analysts have long suggested that Chavez's socialist "revolution" depends on his charismatic and authoritarian leadership, and would wither without him.

Unlike Cuba, when Fidel Castro handed over to his brother Raul, there is no obvious successor in Venezuela.

Despite some whispers in opposition circles that Chavez may have something more serious like cancer, there is little known reason to doubt the official version that he had a successful operation and is recovering normally.

Chavez has been carrying out government business from Havana, talking to ministers and even signing a debt law.

"The legitimate, constitutional and legal president, in full exercise of his powers, is Hugo Chavez. Full stop. End of discussion," vice-president Jaua said.

Opponents say Chavez abused the law by extending his Cuba stay without permission from parliament. To plug that gap the National Assembly, where the socialists have a majority, granted him indefinite permission late on Wednesday.

Venezuelans opposition parties, who plan to pick a unity candidate early next year to challenge Chavez in the presidential vote, know that his ties with Cuba annoy many, including among the president's own supporters.

"The capital of Venezuela is Caracas, not Havana," said opposition politician Omar Barboza, driving the point home.

Some 40,000 Cubans are present in Venezuela, many working in slum health projects that are appreciated by locals whatever they may think about the wider relationship.

(Editing by Diego Ore and Doina Chiacu)