An Absent Hugo Chavez Leaves Venezuela On Edge

It now officially two months since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been seen by the public.

Following his Dec. 10 departure to Havana to undergo his fourth cancer-related surgery, the mystery surrounding Chávez’s condition has only deepened.

With the public not hearing or seeing from Chávez himself, the Venezuelan government has been the only source for information.

While their updates have remained optimistic, the government has also continued to offer few specific details.

"The president is in charge and making decisions," Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Saturday after meeting with Brazil's foreign minister. "It's a slow, slow recovery process. But he is fighting his battle with great faith, and clinging to Christ and clinging to life ... and with the conviction that he is going to win this battle, too."

Jaua, who visited Chávez in Cuba last week, said the 58-year-old president has been making political and economic decisions. On Friday, for instance, the government announced it is devaluing the currency.

Confidants including Jaua have recently said the president has overcome complications including a severe respiratory infection following his Dec. 11 surgery for recurrent cancer in his pelvic region.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chávez named as his potential successor before the surgery, has said that the president should be able to return home once his condition permits it.

Whether we wanted to or not, it used to be inevitable to hear him, see he's disappeared.

— Emilia Torres, a university student who supports the opposition

When that might be remains unclear, and the long silence of a leader who used to speak on television almost every day has led many Venezuelans to wonder why he is unable to say at least a few words to the country by phone.

Some analysts say they expect that sooner or later, Chávez's delicate health could make necessary a new election to replace him.

"The transition has already begun in Venezuela, and the election campaign has also begun," said Tulio Hernandez, a sociologist and professor at the Central University of Venezuela. "The transition has also begun in people's heads. Sometimes, there are mistakes among government spokespeople, who start to speak of Chávez in the past tense."

Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello have recently led street demonstrations where supporters have rallied around the president chanting his name and holding photos of him.

If Chávez were to die or step down from the presidency, a new presidential vote would be called within 30 days.

The long silence has left many Venezuelans, including both supporters and detractors of the president, on edge amid rumors and speculation.

"Whether we wanted to or not, it used to be inevitable to hear him, see him, talk about him," said Emilia Torres, a university student who supports the opposition. "Now he's disappeared. We haven't seen him in a long time. We don't even know if he's really OK or not."

Chávez has undergone several cancer treatments in Cuba since June 2011, including surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He hasn't revealed the type of cancer or the exact location where tumors have been removed from his pelvic region.

During previous stints in Cuba, Chávez regularly kept in contact through phone calls broadcast on television and messages on Twitter. Now, those messages have been replaced by updates given by his Cabinet ministers.

The updates recently have been given less frequently, while government officials say Chávez's condition has slowly improved.

"I want them to tell us the truth. I don't want to keep seeing ministers saying that El Comandante sends us regards," said Lenin Colmenares, a street vendor who sells posters and photos with images of Chávez. "I hope El Comandante himself will be the one to say it. Why doesn't he?"

Colmenares said he hopes the president will be able to return. He also said none of the other officials in his socialist movement can compare to the charismatic leader.

"I'm for the revolutionary process, but if I support another one (within Chávez's movement) it's only because El Comandante asked for it," Colmenares said. "That man is unique."

Chávez, who counts 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro among his leading influences, first took office in 1999 and was re-elected to a new six-year term in October. Throughout his presidency, he has cultivated an image as the sole leader of his Bolivarian Revolution movement.

Now, he has turned to Maduro and others to carry on in his absence.

"We're obviously at a crossroads," said Oscar Valles, a political analyst and professor at the Metropolitan University in Caracas. He said that during the past two months, "it's been hard for the predominant circle within Chavismo to articulate leadership that can begin to replace that of the president in this difficult transition."

There have been previous cases of leaders in other countries vanishing from public view for long stretches due to health problems.

Fidel Castro, for one, has appeared in public only occasionally since he fell ill in 2006 and formally stepped aside from the presidency less than two years later.

In Nigeria, President Umaru Yar'Adua left the country for medical treatment in 2009 and died months later.

Venezuelan lawmakers voted last month to indefinitely postpone Chávez's Jan. 10 inauguration. The opposition argued that was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court sided with the government and ruled that the president could be sworn in before the court at a later date.

"I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying that what's happening in Venezuela is historically unheard of," Valles said in a telephone interview. "We've never before seen a political process where a term is indefinitely extended."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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