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As Venezuela President Hugo Chávez lies in a hospital in Cuba, uncharacteristically quiet for the last two weeks, speculation is running rampant in Miami’s Venezuelan exile community about his health, and the future of the South American nation.
Some leaders there believe the nation’s legislators should address what they say is a power vacuum in the presidency.
Oswaldo Muñoz, publisher of El Venezolano, a newspaper that reaches nearly 150,000 Venezuelans who reside in Miami, says: “He is a recovering patient in a foreign country and the national assembly should declare who is in charge while he is out of the country.”
Chávez's Twitter account carried three messages Saturday, but it has not provided any information about his health.
It’s been more than two weeks since doctors in Cuba performed emergency surgery on Chávez. Little is known about his condition, and it remains unclear when he will return to Venezuela. His frequent television appearances and endless speeches have been absent from the airwaves, causing many to speculate about his health and who’s in charge back home.
“That is the $64,000 dollar question,” Muñoz said. “He’s been gone for almost 20 days and no one knows when he will return to Caracas.”
Chávez, who is 56, was on an official eight-day trip to Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. According to statements released from Venezuela’s information ministry, government Twitter posts and state media, he underwent surgery to remove a pelvic abscess.
Officials have provided few details regarding Chávez’s health and have limited their comments only to say that he is recuperating.
“We’ve only seen a photograph of him looking haggard next to Raúl and Fidel Castro,” said Muñoz, while discussing the layout of next week’s publication with his staff in Doral. Muñoz noted that like the Castro regime, “Venezuela is guarding Chávez’s physical condition like a government secret.”
A few blocks down the street, customers at El Arepazo 2 gathered to speculate on Chávez’s health and whereabouts. The diners at the Venezuelan eatery jokingly tossed around theories about why Chávez has been absent from the public view – and whether he may have a life-threatening disease such as cancer.
Many are critical of the Venezuelan government’s silence.
“There is so much misinformation from the government," said Lorenzo Di Stefano, owner of the restaurant. “Whether we like it or not, he is the president and the constitution stipulates that all citizens have the right to be informed, especially when it concerns our president.”
Meanwhile, Venezuelans in Miami say the country is facing other serious domestic issues that must be addressed, such as crime, inflation and energy woes. No one has heard Chávez speak publicly since June 12, when he told Venezuelan state television via telephone that he was recovering from surgery.
He added that further tests showed no sign of any malignant illness.
According to Manuel Corao, host of a radio talk show on La Poderosa 1070 AM in Miami, “Creating this mystery about Chávez’s health could also be a ploy to motivate empathy for the president due to the decline of his approval ratings in recent polls.”
The Venezuelan journalist went on to say that sources have confirmed that Chávez’s urologist, Ariel Kaufmann, is also in Havana.
Meanwhile, many speculate the Venezuelan leader’s return is imminent, and that he will possibly return in time to celebrate Venezuela’s Independence Day on July 5.
Cristina Puig is a freelance reporter based in Miami.