Chávez retains grip on power after surgery

Venezuela's President has been in Cuba for cancer treatment, but the opposition seems powerless to mount a serious challenge

The battle between the haves and the have-nots in Venezuela is coming to a climax this weekend as President Hugo Chávez seeks a return to normality following treatment for cancer in Cuba.

"I'm staying in power", he announced in a television interview on Friday, during which he quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes ("a time to be born and a time to die") and invoked Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, "the spirits of the plain" and Simó* Bolívar, the national hero.

Mr Chávez announced that he was in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery, ending several weeks of speculation about his health. His disorganised adversaries in the oligarchy in Caracas, who failed to overthrow him in a coup supported by Washington and Catholic bishops in 2002, are as keen as ever to oust him. Yet there is little sign that the poor majority who have supported him during his 12 years in power are deserting him.

It remains unclear when Mr Chávez will be well enough to return to Venezuela. In practice, the President's health problems appear to be consolidating his support among the poor, many of whom realise that he has used the country's oil wealth more creatively than any previous government. Since he won office in 1999, he has cut the proportion of those below the poverty line from a half to a quarter of the population, and halved the number of down and outs. Unemployment is down to 7 per cent. Many of those who are opposed to Mr Chávez have themselves benefited from the care of the Cuban doctors and nurses who have been stationed across the country.

Poor Venezuelans see nothing wrong with the President's strategy of using the country's oil money to focus on social programmes. While there is certainly a strong sense that money is being siphoned off by corrupt officials, the forecasts of national bankruptcy that orthodox economists have been making for years have wilted in the face of the mountain of cash that arrives every day. On Tuesday, the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence from Spanish colonial rule, the armed forces will show off modern weapons they have just bought from Russia amid loud praise for Bolívar. The new Russian armour will be paraded along Caracas' Avenida de los Próceres (Heroes' Avenue) in two days' time.

Nevertheless, it looks likely – though not yet certain – that Mr Chávez himself will miss the biggest party mounted in the Veneuzuelan republic, a country mad on celebrations.

His absence has given the opposition the best opportunity to replace him since 2002. There also seems to be no one in the Chávez camp with the stature to fill his boots, not least because, between elections, he has concentrated power in his own hands. The President has made some attempts to unite all those who support him into one party, the Venezuelan United Socialist Party. So far, the task is comparable to herding cats.

If the opposition were to attempt to an overthrow, they would face resistance from the 100,000 co-operatives and other local self-help initiatives established during the Chávez era, and the rudimentary pro-Chávez militia. While the opposition has been bitterly critical of these grassroots organisations, they are seen by poor Venezuelans as their link to the government. "Now there's the militia," one slum-dweller remarked in the Caracas barrio of San Agustín, "I'm no longer frightened of men in uniform."

For its part, the opposition, gathered in the Democratic Unity Group, lacks any outstanding figure. It is relying on powerful media owners to sabotage the Chávez message by, for instance, editing material favourable to him out of their news bulletins.

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