Chavez's health looms over Venezuelan election campaign

Despite having cancer, Hugo Chavez, the voluble president of Venezuela, is looking to extend his socialist revolution with another election win on Oct. 7. His determination to stay on the political battlefield is inspiring and alarming his supporters in equal measure, turning this into a must-watch campaign.
Despite fighting cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been actively campaigning for re-election. The vote is Oct. 7. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to telling a good story, no politician does it better than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

I’ve often heard Chavez – an avid reader of history – recount the tale of El Cid, a battle-hardened Spanish knight known for his military prowess.

Legend has it that after El Cid died in combat, the old warrior’s corpse was fitted with his armour, strapped onto his beloved horse and sent thundering into enemy troops, inspiring his men to victory that day.

Chavez, who’s had his own brush with mortality in the past year, is hoping to lead his socialist troops to victory (again) in the presidential election on Oct. 7.

His determination to stay on the political battlefield is inspiring and alarming his supporters in equal measure, turning this into a must-watch campaign.

The true state of his health is the subject of constant rumours. Venezuelans, who love to talk, are talking about where the country – and the revolution – would be without Chavez. 

The president’s been through three surgeries and numerous rounds of chemotherapy — all in top-secret Cuba — for a recurring tumour in his abdominal area. In June, when he registered himself as a presidential candidate, the speculation was whether he’d even live to see voting day.

'Completely cured' of cancer

The president has never publicly divulged what kind of cancer he has, but by July, he claimed he was "completely cured." A Venezuelan doctor who dared to question this self-diagnosis was forced to flee the country.

Though Chavez is looking better than he did back in June, his cancer, combined with a stronger opposition, has turned this campaign into a tense and bizarre political drama that even has touches of Hollywood. For the first time since the charismatic soldier came to power in 1999, his political rivals are feeling a little hopeful.

For one thing, the president is campaigning less actively. The 58-year-old Chavez, who’s used to speaking to huge rallies for hours at a time — maybe even doing a little singing and dancing — has been forced to change his style. No more non-stop campaigning. Not as many mega-events. He says he’s following doctor’s orders to work less, get plenty of rest and let his body recuperate.

Meanwhile, the opposition is fielding a candidate who’s making a point of walking – sometimes even running – to many of his events. After years of infighting, disorganization and questionable political tactics, the various opposition parties got together and backed a single candidate, Henrique Capriles, under the Democratic Unity coalition. Capriles is a young, energetic, left-leaning state governor.

Upstart opponent

With the incumbent attending fewer public rallies and opting for more TV and radio appearances, the 40-year-old Capriles is wading into traditional Chavez territory, from poor city slums to far-flung rural communities.

Henrique Capriles, governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, has become a formidable opponent for President Hugo Chavez in the current election campaign. (Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty )

Capriles is promising to keep Chavez’s beloved social programs, create jobs, build schools, double oil production, tackle crime and inflation. He accuses the Chavez government of corruption, inefficiency and cronyism. In the hopes of attracting foreign investors back to Venezuela, Capriles says he would govern more like former Brazilian president and popular socialist Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva.

Chavez, who once said that he’d like to stay in office until 2031, wants to leave an indelible mark on Venezuela. His 39-page platform is aimed at deepening his Bolivarian revolution, turning the country into a more centralized state and "making socialism irreversible." If re-elected, he’s also promising to build two million homes to tackle the country's chronic housing shortage.

During his 13 years in office, Chavez has used Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to fund free schools, subsidize food programs, build houses, set up medical clinics and offer loans to poor people he says have been left out of the country’s petroleum-fueled prosperity. As a result, he can count on the solid support of at least a third of the population. 

But Chavez has been equally maligned for politicizing the state-controlled oil company and using it as a piggy bank for his social programs, rather than re-investing the profits to maintain the country’s most important industry.

According to OPEC, Venezuela’s producing a lot less oil than it did when Chavez took over, dropping its output from three million barrels a day in 1999 to 2.4 million today.

The Aug. 25 explosion and fire at Venezuela’s biggest refinery, which killed 48 people, has given the opposition more ammunition. The local union boss said his workers had complained that repairs weren’t being done to damaged and leaking equipment.

Not interested in debate

The president has refused all offers to debate the opposition; there are no election laws that force him to do so. And thanks to Venezuela’s rather loose campaign rules, neither side has to divulge where they’re getting their money, or how much they’re spending. The opposition accuses Chavez of using oil money to fund his campaign, while Chavez accuses them of raising funds from foreign "Yankee lovers."

Hugo Chavez indulges his musical side during a campaign rally in Charallave, Venezuela on Sept. 9, 2012. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty

At least one high-profile American has come to the president’s aid. Last month, Hollywood rebel-turned-international-humanitarian Sean Penn got on stage with Chavez. Penn fist-bumped and hugged his friend, then rode through a huge rally with him — but didn’t say a word.

However, another group of rebels may end up playing a larger role in Chavez’s favour.  At around the same time that voters go to the polls, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be starting historic peace talks with the Colombian government.

Chavez has long been accused of giving sanctuary to Latin America’s biggest rebel group, but now he’s being applauded for his role in bringing them to the negotiating table.

Helping to end nearly 50 years of violence in neighbouring Colombia would enhance Chavez’s reputation on the international stage. Whether that will translate into votes at home is hard to say.

Many undecided voters

Unlike past elections, a lot of Venezuelans say they don’t know who to vote for — according to many polling companies, between 25 and 30 per cent of the country’s 19 million registered voters are undecided.

However, the pollsters’ numbers vary so wildly that their statistics do little to clarify the political mood. In fact, they’re accused of contributing to a partisan atmosphere. Some give Chavez a "mathematically irreversible" lead (as Chavez calls it), while others give the opposition a three-point advantage. The most oft-quoted pollsters are giving Chavez a double-digit lead, but say it’s getting smaller.

The same pollsters say voters are worried about jobs, education and inflation, but more than all of them put together they’re worried about violent crime, especially in the capital of Caracas.

Like nearly everything in Venezuela, no one can agree on the truth. Some call it the most violent city in the region; others say it’s on par with many other Latin American cities.

Getting the real numbers is nearly impossible. The Interior Ministry has blocked direct access to its files, and ordered the police to do the same. 

Chavez almost never talks about crime, but during a campaign event this past weekend, he told the "peace-loving rich" in Venezuela that they risk a "civil war" if he doesn’t win. 

"Chavez guarantees peace, stability and economic growth," he told a rally.

But can the president guarantee he’ll be around to continue his beloved revolution? Whether he likes it or not, his health has become top of mind for embattled Venezuelan voters.