HAVANA TIMES, July 4 (IPS) — The pieces on Venezuela’s political chessboard have shifted as a result of President Hugo Chavez’s illness and convalescence in Cuba. His surprise return to Venezuela Monday has opened questions as to how the game will be played in future.
“I’m here, happy to be home, and I will be with you from my command post in the heart of Caracas and Venezuela. Although of course, I never left, I never went away, I am always with you,” Chavez said on state television as soon as his plane landed.
In a Jun. 30 speech broadcast from Havana after weeks with no official word and widespread rumors and uncertainty over his state of health, the 56-year-old president acknowledged that he had been convalescing since Jun. 11 from surgery for a pelvic abscess in which a cancerous tumor was removed.
“This is the start of my return. I have gone back to the routine of a cadet, with strict timetables, medical check-ups and rehabilitation,” he said. Chavez was referring to his army career, in which he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1992, when he led a failed coup d’état.
He announced he might not attend the July 5 military parade and other ceremonies to commemorate Venezuela’s 200th anniversary of independence.
During the four weeks he spent in Cuba, in spite of undergoing two operations, Chavez and his advisers insisted that he was kept up-to-date on government affairs, exercising full presidential powers. During this period, Vice President Elías Jaua rejected calls by the opposition for him to temporarily replace the president.
The vice president, who is appointed, not elected, in Venezuela, hinted that Chavez would run again for the presidency in 2012, saying “this return is the start of battles and future victories we will have as a people, with him (Chavez) as leader.”
To have delegated executive power to the vice president, even for a few days, would have been “another blow for Chavez’s followers, at least one-third of the electorate, who were already crushed by the loneliness caused by their leader’s physical breakdown,” analyst Oscar Schémel, head of the polling firm Hinterlaces, told IPS.
“Venezuela’s political process since 1999 has been headed by a leader who inspires devotion that is more religious than political, and is perceived as someone who loves the poor and wants what is good for the people,” said Schémel.
“To his grassroots followers, their leader is everything, and without him they fear the loss of what they have gained or are about to gain,” he added.
From the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) lowliest activist to leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba, everyone recognizes that Chavez is essential for the evolution of the “Bolivarian revolution”, as he calls the process of change ushered in since he took office in 1999, into “21st century socialism.”
As an expression of that continuity, Chavez has already launched his candidacy for the elections due in the second half of 2012, when a president will be chosen for the next six-year term, 2013-2019.
Carlos Romero, a professor of doctoral students in political science at the Central University, told IPS: “these days, uncertainty and caution are the watchwords, in view of at least three scenarios for the Venezuelan electoral panorama.”
The first is for the president to stand as a candidate, as his opponents had been expecting until a month ago; the second is for Chavez to attempt to become a candidate, but fail; and the third is for him to physically be unable to run for reelection
In the third scenario, “emphasizing the continuity of Chavez’s legacy will be vital in governing party propaganda,” Schémel predicted.
Luis León, head of the Datanalysis polling firm, told IPS that the opposition “should not relax in the present circumstances; on the contrary, it should prepare itself for a tough battle, and present a united front and real proposals that are attractive to voters.”
Alternatives to Chavez “can no longer present themselves simply as the opposition, but must appeal to national unity and human values, with an emphasis on convincing social policies,” Schémel said.
In the “hand-to-hand” combat between candidates, political scientists like José Vicente Carrasquero highlighted to IPS “the relative disadvantage faced by a Chavez who is convalescent or threatened by health problems, compared with a political rival who will probably be much younger.”
The opposition Democratic Unity Coalition will meet to select their candidate in primaries scheduled for early 2012. The presidential hopefuls with the greatest chances are governor Henrique Capriles of the central state of Miranda, Pablo Pérez, the governor of the western state of Zulia, and Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a Caracas municipality, although he is temporarily disqualified because of corruption. All three politicians are barely 40 years old.
In his favor, Chavez has not only massive recognition by the population, but also the backing of the majority PSUV and the tacit support of the entire state structure.
The unknown variable in the short term is whether his illness, convalescence and recovery will be used to forge a new propaganda tool to rebuild the president’s popularity, which according to some polls has been eroded by 12 years in power, or whether they will block his prospects of electoral victory.
If the latter is the case, the PSUV would need to select a new candidate, a move for which the party is unprepared as there is no heir-apparent who could step into Chavez’s shoes.