Last updated: July 1, 2011 11:39 pm

Chávez admits to having cancer

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President Hugo Chávez’s battle against cancer, which he solemnly admitted to in a brief televised message from Cuba on Thursday night, has plunged Venezuela’s political future into doubt.

With presidential elections due in December 2012, it is feared that, if an ailing Mr Chávez is forced to abstain from running again, political infighting could erupt not only among his supporters but also his opponents.

Comparing the situation to a botched coup that he led in 1992, Venezuela’s leader said he felt like he was “at the bottom of another abyss” which threatened to swallow him up. However, he insisted he was heading for a “full recovery”, saying that the cancerous tumour was removed. He gave no date for his return to Caracas from Cuba where he is being treated, adding only that his treatment “can’t be rushed”.

“This has surprised us all,” said Nicmer Evans, a leftwing analyst at Central University of Venezuela. “In these 12 years of Chávez’s government, he has always appeared to be a man of extraordinary strength and great energy.” This image contrasted greatly with the ashen man who ponderously read out a 15-minute statement detailing his medical condition.

“Right now, Chávez continues to be indispensable for the revolutionary movement. There’s no one else that can replace him. All the powerful politicians in government in one way or another depend directly on and owe their influence to Chávez,” said Mr Evans.

Indeed, despite problems such as violent crime, high inflation and blackouts, Mr Chávez, who has dominated political life since taking power in 1999, retains the support of about half the population. News that he is battling cancer triggered spontaneous gatherings around the country.

“Come back, we’re here waiting for you with love, with trust, always thinking of you, praying for you every day,” said Lisbeth Luna at a rally in Mr Chávez’s support in Caracas. “Don’t lose heart, because if you do, all of us who are with you will too,” she said, before crying.

While some argue that a vacuum could lead to infighting among his United Socialist party, Mr Evans says the illness could get his followers to pull together. They are aware that, if they did not do so, they would stand no chance against a newly unified opposition.

On the other hand, he argues that, should Mr Chávez be forced to stand down from the 2012 race, the opposition could splinter, as they will no longer feel the need to unify, given the lack of such a prodigious candidate. So far, Mr Chávez’s opponents have responded respectfully. His most likely adversary, Henrique Capriles Radonski – should he stand for election next year – said he wanted Mr Chávez fit to allow a fair fight.

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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