World Focus: Has Hugo Chavez come home to rule – or home to die?

Hopes that their idol would take up the reins of his revolution appear to have dissipated

Speculation is mounting that Hugo Chavez has entered the terminal phase of his cancer and his return to Venezuela may have been in order to die in his homeland.

“El Comandante” touched down in Caracas in the early hours of Monday after more than 70 days in a Havana hospital following his fourth cancer operation there in 18 months.

News of his return prompted jubilant scenes among his supporters, many of whom gathered outside the Carlos Arvelo military hospital, where Chavez was transferred by ambulance from the airport, to celebrate.

But hopes that their idol would once again take up the reins of his “Bolivarian” socialist revolution appear to have rapidly dissipated. Since returning to Caracas, the 58-year-old President has remained hidden from public view and the government has made it clear that his battle with cancer is far from over.

“The President has returned to continue his medical treatment. The President’s time right now is not political,” Rodrigo Cabezas, a senior member of Chavez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela said on state TV.

The fact that few other details have been divulged may be motivated by the Venezuelan constitution, which requires new presidential elections within 30 days if it is determined the president can no longer carry out his functions.

But one clue came via the Spanish paper ABC, which reported that the team of Russian and Cuban doctors treating Chavez has concluded nothing more can be done to stop the cancer and that the President’s treatment should now focus on “palliative care in this final phase”.

Attributing its apparent scoop to “sources in contact with them”, ABC added that several doctors had now left the team treating Chavez, and that the President would not be returning to Cuba for further treatment. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, anxious not to arouse nationalist sentiment or memories of Washington’s past brutal interventions in Latin America – including George W Bush’s backing for the failed 2002 coup against Chavez – continued its gentle prodding of the Venezuelan government to end the constitutional limbo.

“There was an election but there hasn’t been a swearing-in,” state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “Should President Chavez become permanently unavailable to serve, our understanding is that the Venezuelan constitution requires that there be an election to seek a new president.”

Nevertheless, Chavez’s government has shown itself capable of taking decisions in the President’s absence. Earlier this month it devalued the Bolivar and announced a corruption investigation of leading opposition figures.

Congress speaker Diosdado Cabello, a Chavista hardliner, even described Henrique Capriles, the centrist candidate who lost to Chavez in October’s presidential elections, as the “Venezuelan Pablo Escobar”.

That offensive may have been intended to close Chavista ranks in the face of disciplined campaigning by Capriles since doubts about Chavez’s ability to continue in office first surfaced in December.

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