CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez is recovering favorably despite suffering complications during cancer surgery in Cuba, his vice president said Thursday amid uncertainty over the Venezuelan leader’s health crisis and the country’s political future.
A day after officials painted a grim picture of Chavez’s health, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced at a political rally that his condition “has evolved from stable to favorable, which supports maintaining the diagnosis of an increasing recuperation.”
In the latest of a series of reports about the president’s delicate condition, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Chavez was making a “progressive and favorable” recovery after suffering bleeding from Tuesday’s surgery.
“This recovery process, nevertheless, will require a prudent period of time as a consequence of the complexity of the surgery performed,” Villegas said.
Dr. Julian Molina, a cancer expert from the Mayo Clinic in the United States, said bleeding is not uncommon when doctors operate in the same place multiple times to remove cancerous tissue, as is the case with Chavez.
The government has been providing regular updates on the president’s recovery following six hours of surgery in a slight easing of the secrecy that has surrounded Chavez’s medical treatment since he fell ill last year. No clinical details have been provided, however.
The latest bulletin about Chavez’s health came as supporters prayed for him at church services and as Venezuelans increasingly acknowledged the potential for political turmoil ahead if the leftist leader is unable be sworn in for his fourth term early next year – a possibility raised by his government.
One-man rule has been the glue that has held together Chavez’s socialist movement, and he hadn’t groomed any clear successor until he announced over the weekend that if cancer cuts short his presidency he wants Maduro to take over.
Some Venezuelans believe power struggles may already be brewing within the president’s “Chavismo” movement, which includes groups from radical leftists to moderates. Maduro heads a civilian-political wing that is closely aligned with Cuba’s communist government. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a Chavez confederate in the failed 1992 coup that brought him fame, is thought to wield power within the military.
“In politics, everything is possible,” said Gustavo Chourio, a bookseller in downtown Caracas. “Maduro doesn’t have influence with those in the military. Diosdado has the influence.”
Chavez was re-elected to another six-year term in October. His allies have expressed hope about the president returning home for his Jan. 10 inauguration, but on Wednesday Villegas acknowledged in a written message on a government website that it’s possible the president might not be well enough to return in time.
It remains unclear where the bleeding occurred or how severe the complications were. Still secret are numerous details about the cancer in the president’s pelvic area, including the type and location of the tumors that have been removed.
Throughout Chavez’s nearly 14-year government, egos and dogma have clashed in his inner circle but his allies have always deferred to and parroted him. Chourio said he believes the president’s movement has grown so strong that it will persist without him. But he predicted Maduro and Cabello will have a reckoning.
“Those two will have to work it out to guarantee the country’s stability,” said Chourio, a longtime Chavez supporter.
Some analysts consider a struggle for control inevitable.
“What’s likely to happen is a power struggle between Maduro and Cabello,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “It is almost certain that an intense power struggle is already under way within Chavismo.”
Shifter said key protagonists in the president’s camp, including Maduro and Cabello, have long had to suppress personal ambition as Chavez monopolized decision-making.
“With Chavez no longer on the scene, and the power vacuum exposed, the situation becomes extremely unpredictable,” Shifter said. “The fact that Maduro is Chavez’s designated successor gives him the upper hand for the time being, but that is unlikely to last long. The others vying for power are wily and ruthless. From the outset, the Chavez regime has been about power – including lots of money – and now all of that is up for grabs.”
Maduro and Cabello, for their part, projected a united front this week by appearing together at events along with other Cabinet ministers and military commanders. Speaking alongside Cabello and others Wednesday, Maduro said: “We’re more united than ever.”
Maduro was somber-faced as he warned that Chavez faced a “complex and hard” recovery period.
But at a rally on Thursday night, Maduro apologized for having shown sadness. “Our faces are an expression of the pain, the worry, the purest love that we feel for Hugo Chavez,” said Maduro, whose voice was hoarse as he shouted to the crowd.
The government said in its statement that “additional specific treatments are foreseen in order to contribute to the full recovery of his health.”
The 58-year-old president underwent his fourth cancer-related operation in Havana after announcing that tests had found the illness had come back despite previous operations, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Several outside medical experts have said that based on Chavez’s account of his condition and his treatment so far, they doubt the cancer can be cured. Some cancer experts say Chavez could be suffering from an aggressive type of sarcoma.
If Chavez were to die or be unable to continue in office, the constitution says that new elections should be held within 30 days. If that happens before the swearing-in, the president of the National Assembly is to take over temporarily until elections are held.
Before his surgery, Chavez acknowledged such a scenario. He said on television, with Maduro and Cabello seated beside him, that if he is unable to continue on as president, Maduro should be elected to take his place and lead the socialist movement.
On Caracas’ traffic-clogged streets, people were busy with pre-Christmas shopping and the government put up new banners on lampposts reading “Now more than ever, with Chavez.”
While some of his supporters expressed fears about a messy succession battle, others said the people wouldn’t stand for it.
“I trust Chavez’s allies aren’t going to end up fighting if El Comandante leaves us,” said Mariana Salas, who sells orange juice and fruit on a sidewalk in the working-class neighborhood of Petare. “If it turns out that some of them do, they should be expelled from the party because Chavez gave a very clear order: Maduro is the man we should follow.”
Noel Perez, who opposes the president, said he thinks that if Chavez dies, “the Chavez movement ends, it’s that simple.”