CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez’s revelation that he is battling cancer raises questions about the future of his drive to bring socialism to Venezuela and create a Latin America free of Washington’s influence.
The biggest question, though, is just how sick is he?
Suddenly, the issue isn’t so much about how long Chavez should govern after 12 often-tumultuous years in power, but how long he can.
In a surprise announcement Thursday night, Chavez disclosed that he had a cancerous tumor removed while on a trip to Cuba last month, though he didn’t give details about what kind of cancer or say how soon he might return home.
Doctors consulted in the United States and Venezuela agree that from the few details Chavez shared, he most likely has colon cancer and could face treatment for the next eight to nine months.
During his tenure, Chavez has become a maverick leftist voice and an oil-rich benefactor for governments from Cuba to Nicaragua to Bolivia. His campaign to counter U.S. influence in Latin America has led him to build alliances with foes of Washington across the globe, from Iran to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Now the uncertainty over his health has raised questions about how long that will continue and whether a successor would maintain Chavez’s policy of “checkbook diplomacy” to prop up the region’s left.
Chavez aides insisted Friday that the president was still fully in charge and working from Cuba while recovering, though it was unclear how long his recuperation might take.
Meanwhile, state television aired prerecorded video of a meeting in Cuba on Wednesday in which Chavez was shown discussing road projects and other issues with his brother Adan, his foreign minister and a military chief. “Despite the difficulties, Venezuela will be victorious,” Chavez said.
The effort to portray business as usual comes after three weeks of uncertainty in which Chavez was largely out of sight and speculation was rife that he might be seriously ill. Before his speech on Thursday, Venezuelans had heard only that Chavez had undergone surgery to remove a pelvic abscess.
The 56-year-old Chavez was noticeably thinner and pale as he disclosed he had two operations in Cuba, including one that removed a tumor in which there were “cancerous cells.”
The socialist leader had previously vowed to win re-election next year and govern for another decade or more. Now he has yet to say whether that plan still stands.
In a country where the political system is so clearly identified with Chavez, it will be difficult for the president’s “socialist revolution” to continue without him, analysts say.
“Chavismo without Chavez doesn’t exist,” said Joel D. Hirst, an international affairs fellow at the Washington-based Council of Foreign Relations. “The revolution is really about one man.”
“If for some reason Chavez was not able to continue as president or to run in the 2012 election, it would produce a tectonic shift in Latin American politics.”
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst with IHS Global Insight in London, agreed, calling Chavez’s announcement a “game-changer” because there is no obvious successor.
Chavez revealed few details about his illness, saying only that the tumor was in the pelvic region and that he was continuing to receive treatment in Cuba.
“Statistically, it would most likely be a colorectal cancer,” said Dr. Michael Pishvaian, a cancer specialist at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center who was not involved in the Venezuelan leader’s treatment.
“It’s not unheard of for a gastrointestinal cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, to have broken through the colon and be surrounded by an abscess, a collection of infected cells,” he said.
The presence of an abscessed tumor is not a good sign, said Dr. Thomas J. George Jr., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida and a specialist in gastrointestinal cancers.
“This is usually because the cancer is fairly aggressive. This could be a variety of different cancers – none of them good.”
The top possibility, he said, would be colorectal cancer, followed by prostate, bladder, or perhaps a sarcoma – a soft tissue cancer.
“Prostate would probably be the best option in terms of prognosis,” he said.
Some opposition politicians have called for Chavez to temporarily cede his duties to Vice President Elias Jaua.
Jaua assured the country on Friday that there was no need for Chavez to cede his duties as president.
If Chavez were to die or resign, Jaua would serve the remainder of Chavez’s term.
The prospect of a prolonged health crisis could become a factor in the 2012 presidential elections, in which polls showed Chavez in a dead heat against opposition candidates. Should Chavez bow out of next year’s race, the test for the opposition will be whether the opposition will remain united. If it doesn’t, a Chavez crony could be victorious – even though no clear pro-Chavez leader currently stands out.