- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez revealed Thursday evening that he is fighting cancer after having a tumor removed in Cuba, in a bid to retain power over his country from more than a thousand miles away while speculation builds that he could be dying.

Mr. Chavez’s brief speech Thursday night, in which he looked pale and thinner and read from a a prepared text, was only his second public appearance in two weeks since his trip to Havana.

“I have kept informed and am in control of the Venezuelan government,” Mr. Chavez said at one point in the broadcast, adding that he has been in “constant communication” with Vice President Elias Jaua and members of his administration.

The Reuters news agency reported Friday that Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, head of the South American nation’s military, told Venezuelan state television in an interview that Mr. Chavez was recovering “satisfactorily” from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and would be home “soon.”

Gen. Silva added in an interview that Mr. Chavez, a populist leader longtime opponent of U.S. interests in the region, continued to run Venezuela’s government via instructions from Cuba.

But the postponement of a highly touted July 5 regional summit commemorating the bicentennial of the country only fed speculation from Washington analysts about how Venezuela would fare without its polarizing leader.

“Venezuela is not particularly equipped, institutionally speaking, to run without a Chavez at the helm,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “He’s the glue that holds it all together.”

Mark Falcoff, a foreign-policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said that there can be no “chavismo without Chavez” — a reference to the cult of personality that surrounds the 58-year-old political boss.

“There is simply no one in the regime who combines his audacity, his recklessness, his flair for showmanship, and his raw popular appeal to roughly 40 percent of Venezuelan society,” he wrote this week in the National Review Online.

Mr. Falcoff warned that the current government could “collapse into civil war” if Mr. Chavez dies.

However, if he recovers and seeks a fourth term in 2012, his record as a “dictator … will be on trial in the next election,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The Venezuelan people are hungry for democratic governance, and for leaders who will respect and protect their basic rights and freedoms. Chavez’s focus is on consolidating his own power,” the Florida Republican told The Washington Times on Thursday.

Venezuela’s vital oil industry likely would survive intact regardless of Mr. Chavez’s health, one analyst said Thursday.

“Whoever the new government is, it has a vested interest in keeping the money flowing,” said Peter Zeihan, vice president of analysis for Stratfor Global Intelligence.

Venezuela is the fourth-largest source of foreign oil for the United States.

Mr. Chavez underwent an operation June 10 for what the Venezuelan government called a “pelvic abscess.” However, some immediately suggested that Mr. Chavez may be suffering from a more serious condition.

In a report Monday, Stratfor cited an unnamed member of Mr. Chavez’s medical staff as saying he has prostate cancer.

The next day, the Venezuelan government released photographs and a video of Mr. Chavez with former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Opposition leaders claim that Mr. Chavez’s absence has left a power vacuum because no one is governing during his hospitalization. Vice President Elias Jaua disputed those charges.

“President Chavez has not stopped working,” said Mr. Jaua, who read messages posted on the Mr. Chavez’s Twitter account last Friday on national television.

Antonio Ledezma, opposition member and mayor of Caracas, replied, “You can’t govern a country through Twitter.”

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