Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with key administration officials Wednesday to discuss how to run his re-election campaign and manage the country during his recovery from an upcoming surgery. In a public appearance Tuesday and then in a telephone interview with Venezuelan state TV channel VTV, Chavez confirmed that he has a 2-centimeter (approximately 0.8-inch) tumor that will have to be surgically removed no later than this coming weekend. Chavez will undergo the surgery in Havana, Cuba, with the same medical team that removed a cancerous tumor from his body in June.
This confirmation follows months of rumors and leaked reports about Chavez's worsening health. In this week's announcements, Chavez was careful to omit all but the barest details of his illness and of his plan to be absent from politics for several weeks. However, what he did say appears to confirm a January report by Spanish newspaper ABC that claimed a tumor had reappeared in Chavez's abdomen. According to the report, Chavez refused medical recommendations to seek treatment in the wake of his diagnosis. Without the treatment, his doctors had reduced his life expectancy to 9-12 months.
In the short term, the announcement raises questions about the stability of the Chavez regime. Chavez is an integral player in the vast majority of political and technocratic decisions in Venezuela. He also has no clear successor. Although a circle of prominent elites surrounds him, not one of those "Chavistas" has the public legitimacy to be his successor. At this point, the political power struggle that arose when Chavez first announced his illness appears to have settled. In January, Chavez appointed two men who maintain significant support among the military, Diosdado Cabello and Henry Rangel Silva, to be president of the National Assembly and minister of defense, respectively. With this move, it became clear that the more pragmatic and militarily connected — but not necessarily politically popular — faction had risen to the fore.
The political mechanics behind the appointments are not entirely clear. Cabello and Rangel Silva are both powerful in their own right but are largely dependent on Chavez's political legitimacy to maintain the regime. Combined with persistent factionalism within the military, this dependence on Chavez makes a coup d'etat unlikely as long as Chavez is alive. Considering that Chavez's life expectancy without treatment is less than a year, his decision to undergo surgery may actually lower the potential for a crisis within the Chavez regime ahead of the Oct. 7 presidential election.
But stability among the Chavistas does not diminish the potential impact that news of a recurrence of cancer could have on Chavez's prospects for re-election. The opposition in Venezuela recently selected Henrique Capriles Radonski to oppose Chavez in the presidential election, and Capriles is counting on the public's uncertainty about Chavez's longevity and the Chavistas' lack of a clear succession plan to inspire voters to support the opposition in October.
With Chavez's earlier claims of being completely cured having been proved incorrect, events seem to be working to Capriles' favor. Chavez must choose whether he can risk holding office for one more term under such uncertain health circumstances or if he should choose a successor. With no one in Chavez's inner circle possessing significant charisma or influence, it's not entirely out of the question that Chavez could accept a transfer of power to Capriles.