Hugo Chávez Reveals His Battle With Cancer: Will It Affect His Re-election Battle?

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose health has been a subject of intense speculation since he underwent surgery for a pelvic abscess in Cuba on June 10, revealed during a televised address from Havana Thursday night, June 30, that he’s also battling cancer. Chávez insisted he was in the process of a “full recovery” – but the news nevertheless could throw his nation’s politics, and to a certain extent the hemisphere’s, into turmoil in advance of next year’s Venezuelan presidential election.

Chávez, 56, a former paratrooper officer and radical socialist whose 12 years as President have been marked by an acrimonious relationship with the U.S., said doctors in Cuba, where he’d been visiting when he was stricken, “completely extracted” the tumor “without complications” in a second operation. He did not specify what kind of cancer cells the doctors removed, indicating only that they were detected during the draining of his abscess. Though he looked understandably thinner and sounded less fiery, Chávez seemed steady as he stood at a lectern with a portrait of South American independence hero Simón Bolívar behind him.

In Venezuela, the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation, Chávez’s condition has been largely a mystery the past three weeks because both the President and his government have divulged scant information. Officials in Caracas have seemed particularly uncertain about how to proceed in Chávez’s prolonged absence – during which a prison riot has raged outside the capital – which to his critics confirms the oft-heard complaint that governance in Venezuela revolves too much around his caudillo-like personality instead of constitutional process. Chávez did not indicate if he would return to Venezuela in time for the country’s bicentennial celebration July 5. That day he was also supposed to host a summit of Latin American leaders on Venezuela’s Margarita Island; but the government announced on Wednesday that the two-day gathering would have to be suspended due to Chavez’s health.

(Read “Chavez’s Health Postpones a Summit”)

Chávez, whose left-wing Bolivarian Revolution has helped alleviate widespread poverty in Venezuela but has also mismanaged large swaths of the economy and polarized the population, is still Venezuela’s most popular political figure. He plans to run for a third six-year term next year after a 2009 referendum eliminated presidential term limits. But even though he said he was optimistic about regaining his health, it remains to be seen if he’ll be up for the rigors of campaigning, let alone another term if he wins. If in the end he can’t run, there are few likely successors inside his United Socialist Party other than perhaps his older brother Adán, 58, a devout Marxist. That would leave Chávez’s revolution vulnerable at the ballot box to the opposition should it finally unify behind a single candidate.

Either way, when Chávez does return to Venezuela, the revelation of his cancer – what he called “this new battle that life has placed before us” – will have undoubtedly changed the country’s political landscape.