Can Chavez keep the red flag flying?

Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist ruler, may be losing his battle against cancer. David Usborne asks what comes next for Venezuela

Hugo Chavez thrives on drama. After coming to power 13 years ago, the former military officer has survived a coup, likened an American president to the devil and used a combination of charisma and oil revenues to sweep away all serious opposition. But today his raging invincibility is in doubt.

It isn't only that ahead of elections in October, the opposition in Venezuela has settled on a candidate who, though still far behind in the polls, is showing signs of strength. There is another matter weighing more heavily than any other: the recurrence of cancer that was first diagnosed last year.

Today, Venezuelans will wake up knowing that their President is in Cuba, the country where he has chosen to receive treatment, including ongoing radiation therapy and, to date, three operations. The first last June involved removing a tennis-ball sized tumour from his pelvic area. According to the opposition, Mr Chavez has spent almost three of the last twelve months in Cuba.

With characteristic bluster, Mr Chavez has repeatedly vowed to defeat the disease. The setbacks are beginning mount up, however. He declared himself free of cancer at the end of last year only to be told in February it was back. He returned from Cuba to Caracas last Wednesday after one round of radiation only to return to the island again on Sunday. He is scheduled to remain there all of this week.

Any reference to his illness comes with the usual theatrics. "Give me life, even if it is a burning, painful life, I don't care," he pleaded at an Easter mass. "Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people."

He made sure to be in Venezuela at the end of last week for celebrations marking his return to power after the brief coup 10 years ago. Addressing crowds clad in red T-shirts to honour the socialist revolution he has led, he again returned to the topic. "The radiation has an impact on my body, it has some impact on my physical strength, but I am doing well. We will be all right, thank God," he said.

It is a measure of the seriousness of his condition that Mr Chavez opted to skip the Summit of the Americas in Colombia at the weekend, a stage he has previously used to lob rhetorical grenades at Washington. While it was George W Bush who received the devil moniker back in 2006 during a UN General Assembly, the love has been no less absent between Chavez and Barack Obama.

It is now a serous question as to whether Mr Chavez will have it in him to fight the election effectively. He has built an image of an indefatigable, hands-on leader, who works around the clock, delivers speeches that last hours (he broke his own record in January with a 10-hour address) and has laid no visible succession plans. If that presence begins to shrink, voters could begin to turn away.

A lesser ego might surrender to medical counsel and retire. "I think Chavez will hang on until he is incapacitated or dead," Professor Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina said yesterday, while noting that the President's health issues are "clearly serious".

"For Chavez, being President is not a 9-5 job. It's a mission, almost a religious vocation," noted a US biographer of the president, Bart Jones. "His life's work is at stake and it would mean too much for him to take a step back."

The man set to benefit from a weakened Mr Chavez, politically and physically, is the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who at 39 has already set a dizzying pace campaigning across the land on a platform that promises to shed the extremes of the socialist regime.

The most recent poll has put Mr Capriles 13 points behind and Mr Chavez, aside from controlling most of the media, has set about dispensing $26bn to build homes for the poor and give cash to the elderly. But by offering an alternative that might be called Chavez-lite, Mr Capriles may have a chance to make up the gap. "Capriles is trying to appeal to the left and this could definitely pick up votes," predicts Professor Weeks.

And while his over-sized personality and generous state subsidies from oil-fed coffers have worked well for Mr Chavez in the past, voters this time may take heed of the country's mounting problems, including rampant inflation and its record as one of the most violent countries in the Americas.

The opposition is seeking to exploit the absences in Cuba as well as the mystery around the President's illness. The precise nature of the cancer and – crucially – whether there has been any sign of it spreading to other organs has yet to be explained. "In the past 340 days, the President has spent 200 days in recovery and 80 days in Cuba," the opposition member Carlos Berrizbeitia said in Congress recently, adding: "Venezuelans are learning about the President's health from rumours."

The polls have also indicated that, five months from the election, many Venezuelans remain undecided. Just as Mr Chavez faces a diminution of vigour, the younger Mr Capriles is brimming with it, riding a motorbike on the campaign trail and playing basketball.

At the celebrations of the reversal of the coup of April 2002, Mr Chavez did his best to put down the opposition. He predicted he would win "by a knock-out". He added: "It would be easier for a horse to go through the eye of a needle than for the opposition to win the elections." He recently also threatened also to privatise banks he saw as supportive of the opposition. "We will make them repent for ever," he said.

This is the kind of bullying and bravado we have come to expect from Mr Chavez but if the pugilism grows any louder it might be because of the writing he sees on the wall of his doctors' consulting rooms.

The rise of Chavez: Path to power

February 1992 Chavez, then a 37-year-old army officer, leads a failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez.

December 1998 Riding a wave of discontent over alleged state corruption, Chavez – pardoned and freed from jail four years earlier – leads his party to election victory.

April 2002 A coup removes Chavez from office for a few days, but army loyalists return him to power.

December 2006 The President wins another six-year term.

June 2011 Chavez says he has cancer and goes to Cuba for treatment.

News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal