In a display typical of his dramatic leadership style, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned home from cancer treatment in Cuba just in time for Venezuela's bicentennial celebration of its independence from Spain.
From the balcony of the presidential palace, he addressed cheering crowds of supporters waving Venezuelan flags declaring: “I could not miss this!”
Despite speculation about his potential exit from office after next year’s elections because of health concerns, Chavez was adamant that he is on the way to a full recovery. He referred to his surprise reappearance in Caracas as “the beginning of the return,” indicating that he, if his health allows, will not be releasing his tight grip on power any time soon.
“This battle we are also going to win, and we are going to win it together!” he told his supporters. But Chavez’s illness has raised questions about the longevity of his future rule over the Venezuelan people. The discussion it sparked over potential successors underscored the reality that there's no obvious pick to replace him.
The cancerous tumor served as a well-timed—but perhaps short-lived—distraction from high levels of crime, power shortages, and a depressing economic outlook in Venezuela. But Chavez's resulting absence undermined the credibility and transparency of his government. One United Socialist Party official insisted during the absence that the president “definitely did not have cancer.” Opposition parties have criticized the government’s lack of transparency in refusing to reveal details about Chavez’s illness, and denounced his unwillingness to transfer power to Vice President Elias Jaua. The Venezuelan state, critics argued, should not be governed from Havana, no matter how cozy Venezuela’s relationship is with its regional ally.
Chavez used revolutionary rhetoric in his public address to combat the concerns about his ability to govern. He blamed “the manipulating attempts of some well-known sectors.” Chavez’s good-versus-evil language has made him a notorious detractor of the United States, although the State Department joined other governments in wishing him a speedy recovery after hearing news of his operation.
In the case that Chavez’s leadership does have an expiration date, the resulting power vacuum would have important geopolitical implications for the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela currently props up the Cuban economy through cheap oil exports, and a Venezuelan president who is less pro-Cuba might take away the $3.5 billion subsidy that Venezuela currently provides Havana, which would cripple Cuba’s economy.
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