Hugo Chavez's Health Presents Potential Pitfalls for Opposition

Hugo Chávez, center, recovering in Cuba after announcing that he is being treated for cancer. (Photo/Cubadebate, Estudios Revolución)

Hugo Chávez, center, recovering in Cuba after announcing that he is being treated for cancer. (Photo/Cubadebate, Estudios Revolución)  (AP2011)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is sick, and that could present potential pitfalls for his political foes, experts say.

Those opponents face a new playing field with their nemesis being treated for cancer.

Venezuela's loosely knit coalition of opposition factions insists it is sticking with plans to stand behind a single candidate in next year's presidential election, yet the only glue that has held them together for years has been animosity toward Chávez.

If cancer were to force Chávez from the race, long-standing divisions could widen, hurting the opposition's chances for victory.

"The situation poses a severe test for the opposition. They may sense an opportunity but there are risks of fracturing," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Some figures might convince themselves that remaining united is not necessary, and they can afford to stake out different positions."

"Any infighting could be very debilitating," he added.

Most opposition politicians reject the slightest suggestion that the anti-Chávez movement could split if the president were to stop playing an active role in politics. Several months before Chávez became ill, the diverse collection of opposition parties said it will hold a presidential primary in February to select a single presidential candidate.

But under these new circumstances, some of the president's rivals may be "thinking that the barrier to participating in the elections is lowered," said Carlos Blanco, professor of Latin American affairs at Boston University.

"That can create a situation in which more candidates would like to run for the primaries," thereby splintering the opposition, Blanco said.

Some of Chávez's adversaries acknowledge that personal ambitions might get in the way.

"Anything is possible within the opposition," said Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, one of several presidential hopefuls. "We must all relinquish any type of personal ambition, of party interests and follow the path that has been followed so far: the path toward the primary," he said.

Opposition congressman Edgar Zambrano raised concerns that some Chávez opponents have begun maneuvering to advance their own political aspirations, thereby undermining the coalition's efforts to maintain unity.

Without singling out specific politicians, Zambrano said some government adversaries are "creating conflicts and contempt for the coalition."

Some Chávez opponents have suggested the opposition primary should be held earlier, preferably in December, for the coalition to adapt to changing circumstances driven by Chávez's illness and give the winner more time to mount a more effective campaign.

"We cannot rule out changing our agenda if that's what the circumstances call for," said Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who plans to run in the primary.

For the moment, the opposition is standing firmly united on one thing, at least: its criticism of how Chávez's government has handled his illness. They claim officials have been far too secretive and that Vice President Elias Jaua should officially take over the president's duties until he returns from Cuba, where he is recovering after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvis.

But Jaua said that wouldn't happen; that the president is perfectly capable of running the country from Cuba.

Chávez is in the process of "getting better to keep on leading us," Jaua said.

During a televised interview broadcast on Saturday, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said that Venezuelan and Cuban doctors removed a cancerous tumor from Chávez's pelvic region and conducted tests that showed the president's vital organs are healthy.

"They were able to completely remove the tumor," Maduro said. "They examined all of his organs and they are in perfect condition."

Venezuela's state-run AVN news agency released photographs of Chávez that showed the president walking together with Maduro and two of his daughters, Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela. Chávez, who wore a sport jacket and sneakers, appeared pale and thin. The photographs were taken on July 1, according to AVN.

AVN reported the president's stroll along a concrete pathway surrounded by grass and palm trees lasted about 10 minutes. It quoted Maduro as saying Chávez "is in a new phase of recuperation, doing his exercises."

Investors have perceived the socialist leader's illness as a possible opening for change, and Venezuelan government bond prices have rallied in the past two weeks.

"Bonds have gone up 7 percent since it emerged that he was in bad shape," said Russell Dallen, who heads Caracas Capital Markets, a joint venture with the investment bank BBO Financial Services. "Markets have reacted positively to the possibility of some change in the government in Venezuela."

Before Chávez's meteoric rise to power in 1998, Venezuelans had grown largely disillusioned with the country's politicians, pointing to their reputations as unscrupulous, self-interested and corrupt bureaucrats whose only concerns were obtaining and hanging on to power as a means of filling their pockets with public funds. The dominant political parties were equally disliked.

Politicians from the old-guard struggled for years to shed their unfavorable image following Chávez's first victory. But more than a decade has passed and many Venezuelans from both sides of Venezuela's political divide still believe the only objective of some old-guard politicians is ousting Chávez to regain the power and influence they lost.

In the past few years, opposition parties have made significant gains in congressional and gubernatorial elections by forging alliances between conservative and leftist politicians, but ideological differences remain.

"They don't all like each other. They prefer to be separate," said Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. "They decided to be unified because they didn't have any other choice."

In the opposition stronghold of Altamira in Caracas, Chávez opponent Marie Mendez said she is hopeful that the opposition "can do something effective and not egotistical."

"For one thing, this could help us bring in new investments," she said.

On the other hand, she acknowledges that a number of potential opposition candidates might eventually vie for the presidency "and the opposition will likely be divided."

She also thinks that Chávez's illness could bring him more sympathy.

Chávez might initially benefit from public sympathy, but that is likely to give way to concerns over the potential consequences of his illness, Leon said.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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