Ailing Chavez Faces Tough Re-Election Bid

July 21, 2011

Juan Forero

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned to Cuba to undergo chemotherapy after having a tumor removed in June. He says he is in a "battle for life."

Chavez also faces political challenges — from rivalries in his inner circle to an energized opposition. The great unknown is whether the ailing president will have the stamina to overcome, especially as he faces a tough re-election campaign next year.

Chavez has always appeared energetic and buoyant: a strong leader, always in charge and always able to vanquish his opponents. So after his operation in Cuba, the government displayed its muscle at an independence day parade with fighter aircraft and tanks — and with soldiers shouting, "Socialist fatherland or death."

Still, Chavez was too weak to attend. He spoke to the crowd via a live feed from the presidential palace.

These days, Chavez looks thinner and paler — though the government has yet to say what kind of cancer he has.

Jose Albornoz, once a close ally of the president, says Chavez might have to operate more slowly. The president is in a delicate state of health, Albornoz says, and that means he may not have the capacity to dedicate 24 hours a day to politics, as he had in the past.

A Presidential Contender

Henrique Capriles, the leading opposition candidate ahead of next year's presidential election, hopes to capitalize on the situation.

On a recent day, he worked a crowd of potential voters in the poor Las Mercedes district just south of Caracas. Capriles seems to have it all: He's young, telegenic and the governor of Miranda, a rich, centrally located state that provides him with a platform.

The problems in Venezuela, Capriles says, are products of an absolutely inefficient government. He says it has wasted billions from a historic oil boom. There is rampant crime, energy shortages and lost jobs.

Increasingly, polls show Venezuelans deeply concerned about these problems, and that may be hurting Chavez. In one recent national poll, Capriles and Chavez were in a statistical tie when prospective voters were asked which candidate they preferred.

"Health care, security, work, schools" — that's what's needed, says Alfredo Ascanio, one voter among those in Las Mercedes who say they plan to cast their ballot for Capriles.

Chavez's 'Strong Mass Of Support'

Ascanio says Chavez's government isn't delivering on any of those points. But there are those who say you can't count Chavez out. They include Carlos Romero, a political analyst.

"There is a strong government in Venezuela. [It] has been in power for more than 11 years," Romero says. "There is a strong political party and there is a strong mass of support for the regime."

Romero says some opposition politicians, including Capriles, present themselves as a sort of new Chavez. They rely on populism to win support — the same kind of populism that Chavez has used effectively for a dozen years.

On his recent swing through Las Mercedes, Capriles handed out vouchers people could use to renovate their homes. That clearly won him points from Ana Teresa de Pacheco, who got a voucher and can now pay for a new roof on her house.

But when asked about Chavez, de Pacheco says she has supported him, too, and would consider doing so in the future if Chavez's government provides her with help.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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