CARACAS—Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president, Hugo Chávez, resurfaced Monday night after a week’s silence, telling a state television show via telephone that he will be back in Venezuela in coming days and is in the final stages of his radiation treatment.
He also said he is ready to campaign for re-election, but speculation is rife in the oil-rich South American country that his health is worsening and that he may not be fit to run, or if he wins, be able to serve out a third six-year term.
Since April 13, the socialist leader has made just one live public appearance, a brief speech he gave April 30 in which he didn’t move from his podium. “These are not easy days,” an emotional Mr. Chávez admitted during that last live speech before flying to Havana a week ago for more radiation therapy to treat an undisclosed type of cancer.
His silence is out of character for the 57-year-old populist, who has long been the omnipresent showman during his 13 years in power, taking to the airwaves nearly daily for hours of often mandatory national broadcasts. Mr. Chávez has remained active on his Twitter account, but has done little beyond that.
Even during past rounds of chemotherapy in Cuba, Mr. Chávez was well enough to phone in or tape interviews that were broadcast on state television. But his Monday night phone call was his first in a week. In the call, Mr. Chávez looked to quell fears over his future, saying he hadn’t even yet begun campaigning because of his health problems, but promised to take part in the vote and deliver a “knockout” to the opposition coalition.
Yet last week, Mr. Chávez unexpectedly authorized the staffing of a long-ignored government advisory group called the Council of State. While the group ostensibly was formed to study Venezuela’s exit from a hemispheric human rights forum, it was staffed by Chávez’s top allies, including Vice President Elias Jaua and former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.
That authorization led to speculation that the group would act as some kind of body to pick an eventual successor in case Mr. Chávez is incapacitated. Many Venezuelans are starting to ponder the once unthinkable: What happens when Hugo Chávez is no longer the president?
Concerns are growing that the various factions contained within the ruling united Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, will turn on each other, threatening the stability of the country, without the strong hand of the president to keep them in check, said Xavier Rodriguez, a political scientist at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.
“There is no tradition of internal debate or open disagreement (within the PSUV),” Rodriguez said. “The ruling party does not have the institutional strength to avoid infighting if Chávez leaves the picture.”
Investment bank Barclays said in a recent report it was “highly likely” that Mr. Chávez would be unable to stand for re-election in October’s presidential contest, “given his deteriorating health,” and would likely look for a successor.
A number of local analysts have suggested Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who is often seen at Mr. Chávez’s side, could be a favorite to take the reins as he is considered a cohesive figure between different factions within the ruling party.
But Mr. Maduro, along with the vice president and a few other top leaders, was tipped by Mr. Chávez late last year to run in gubernatorial elections scheduled for the end of 2012 in a bid to win control of states currently in opposition hands. At the time, the move left many local political analysts scratching their heads, but was seen as Mr. Chávez’s way of securing his position at the top of the government.
Officials have so far not given any indication of who would fill the seat of the vice president after he steps down.
Observers are closely watching for signs during an 11-day period next month when presidential candidates must formally register with the National Electoral Commission. That “would likely be the strongest signal conveyed thus far of [Mr. Chávez's] intentions to contest the presidential elections,” analysts at Nomura said.
But the president’s top allies have consistently declined even to entertain the notion that any other PSUV official could replace Chávez on the ballot.
“Look at the speeches [the opposition] give; they are speeches marked with hopes that the president doesn’t get better because for them it’s one way to triumph,” said Aristobulo Isturiz, the Chávez-allied vice president of the National Assembly, in an interview on state television Monday.
Officials at Venezuela’s Information Ministry didn’t respond to requests seeking comment. A spokeswomen at the ministry said that only Information Minister Andres Izarra and the president were authorized to comment.
Rumors have only grown since the naming of the Council of State. A number of commentators in the local media say the collection of Chávez-loyalists in the newly formed committee sends an ominous signal that the regime would not step aside quietly, even if the president was no longer in power.
“After the naming of the (Council members)…all sort of rumors, murmurs and reactions began,” wrote Nelson Bocaranda, a widely read columnist for the local daily El Universal.
Polls show the president leads opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a head-to-head contest. But that is not the case were any of his lieutenants to run in his stead, as they are either disliked or unknown by the broader public, analysts note.
In a survey released at the end of March, local pollster Consultores 21 found Mr. Capriles easily leading among voters if pitted against other Chavistas, as the president’s allies and followers are known.
“There has never been an election with this much uncertainty,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the leading Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. “We don’t know how a substitute for Chávez would be chosen, if one is needed. We don’t know how Chavismo would react,” he added.
Chavismo, the cultlike following Mr. Chávez has created, could “implode” at the ballot box, or possibly plunge the country into violence amid a struggle to fill a power vacuum. “It’s a time bomb,” Mr. Vicente Leon said.