Friday, October 5, 2012

As Venezuelans head to the polls, Hugo Chávez proves all the prophets wrong

Dec. 12 - Venezuela told to prepare for "difficult scenarios," as president's health takes a dramatic turn for the worse (updates below)

Guadalajara -
In the end, everybody was wrong. The medical experts. The "inside sources." Prominent newspapers. Bloggers and consultants. Latin American specialists. Political enemies. Everybody everywhere.

Everybody but Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the president of Venezuela since 1999.

Earlier this year, the world press made much of his appearance at a Catholic service in Caracas. Clutching a crucifix, his eyes wet, he prayed aloud - begged, really -that his life be spared so that he could continue his mission of leading the 30 million strong Bolivarian Republic. And it was. Probably to the disappointment of more than a few, especially his powerful fencing partner far to the north.

This Sunday, Oct. 7, Venezuelans will elect a president. It may well be the present one. According to today's edition of El Informador, Guadalajara's main daily, the race is a dead heat between Chávez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Both men campaigned hard in recent weeks, setting forth their vision for the nation. Venezuela is now in a mandatory period of electoral silence, customary in many Latin nations in the last few days before balloting begins. No further candidate appearances may occur, and no polls may be taken. In electoral theory, it's a cooling off period.

About 15 million people are expected to vote. Over 100,000 soldiers, police and security personnel will protect them while they do so. The trouble is, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Hugo Chávez, 58, was supposed to be dead by now.

The stories began in the fall of 2011. A primary disseminator was Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and rabid Hugo basher. He opined that Chávez was gravely ill and had been given a "sobering diagnosis," with no more than six months to live. Noriega claimed his information was based on inside sources close to the government in Caracas, who allegedly reported that Chávez would not survive until this year's elections. But the Venezuelan president repeatedly declared he intended to be a candidate, and was ready to mount a vigorous re-election campaign. In recent weeks he's done exactly that.

In September 2011 Noriega told U.S. officials that they should prepare for "a world without Hugo Chávez". On a website Noriega wrote that "Washington policy makers appear unprepared to deal with the chaos that will ensue as the most corrupt members of the Chávez regime plot to retain power, and as the state-run economy collapses."

Last fall Noriega also claimed that his sources, as well as "privileged documents" which he had seen, confirmed that Chávez had prostate cancer, and that "it had spread to his lymphatic system, colon and bones even before Chávez agreed to seek treatment."

Noriega wrote that the U.S. knew of Chávez' cancer six months before the Venezuelan president publicly acknowledged it in June 2011, and he accused American diplomats of "consciously averting attention from Venezuela for years, to avoid having to confront the growing threat posed by a decade of Chávez conspiring with (U.S) enemies and rivals."

Chávez' family urged him to resign but the president refused to do so, according to Noriega, who claimed that Chávez' was determined to project the image of an engaged, physically healthy leader.

In October 2011 a Venezuelan physician gave an interview to a Mexican news magazine, confirming the same dire prognosis. The doctor, who did not participate in Chávez' cancer treatment last year, claimed to have been one of the president's regular physicians for many years. He told the magazine that Chávez had "a pelvic tumor, a sarcoma, very aggressive, with the life expectancy being no more than two years." The doctor claimed that his information came directly from members of Chávez' immediate family. Hugo Chávez given dire prognosis by physician: pelvic sarcoma, two years left.

A few days later, the doctor fled Venezuela. He told a newspaper website that he was visited by Venezuelan security agents soon after the magazine interview was published, and that they had closed down his clinic. Venezuelan doctor who suggested poor prognosis for Chávez is forced to flee. According to Noriega, the Chávez' family had asked the doctor to release the president's medical information, with the hope it might persuade the president to step aside. The plan, if true, didn't work.

Noriega also wrote last year that a number of Venezuela's top military brass are directly involved in narcotics trafficking, and will fight to retain power after Chávez is gone. He added this warning: "U.S. planners must be prepared to deal with the short-term impact of unrest in a country where we import about 10 percent of our oil. Washington must also develop a plan to help Venezuelans clean up the toxic waste of terrorists, narco traffickers, corruption, and Cuban agents Chávez will leave behind."

In January, the Spanish newspaper ABC piled on with the same death sentence, purportedly based on a Dec. 30, 2011 medical examination of Chávez. The paper claimed that an original prostate cancer, first discovered in January 2011, had metastasized to his bones and spinal cord, and that Chávez had a tumor in his upper colon as well. Unless the president consented to further aggressive treatment - something which unidentified sources indicated he was not disposed to do - Chávez' life expectancy was no more than nine months, according to ABC. The paper also claimed that a plan to secretly fly Chávez to Moscow for advanced treatment was abandoned after he responded poorly to several rounds of chemotherapy administered in Havana. Hugo Chávez has but nine months to live, predicts Spanish newspaper ABC.

Still other stories reported great discord among the members of Chávez' Cuban medical team, and the failure by his Havana physicians to take steps which would have been considered mandatory by competent cancer specialists anywhere else. So far, none of those dire prognostications have proved remotely accurate. The Venezuelan president has appeared vigorous, animated and engaged on the campaign trail in recent days.

Perhaps Hugo Chávez knew more than anyone else. A year ago he pronounced himself cured. Maybe he is. Call it mind over matter. Whatever happens in Caracas on Sunday, Chávez has already beaten his opponents in the game of predictions.

Note: It won't be welcome news at the White House, but last week Hugo Chávez officially "endorsed" Barack Obama for president. He loathes the other option: Hugo Chávez lashes out at Mitt Romney.

Oct. 6 - The opposition candidate, 40 year old attorney Henrique Capriles Radonski, has never lost an election. He's campaigning on core bread-and-butter issues (crime and economics, mainly), not on ideological disputes with the U.S. An excellent article opines that Chávez will have no option other than to accept tomorrow's ballot box results. The Venezuelan military would not back him if he refused to acknowledge a Capriles victory, it says: Chávez entregaría poder si pierde.

Oct. 7 - Voting is underway, and long lines have been reported at many polling places throughout the country. Heavy turnouts frequently, although not invariably, favor challengers rather than incumbents. They tend to suggest voters ready for a change. If so, Chávez promises to abide by their decision: El presidente venezolano dice que reconocerá los resultados "sean cuales fueran".

Final Results from Venezuela's national electoral authority: Hugo Chávez, 55%; Henrique Capriles, 45%. Almost 81% of eligible voters turned out at the polls, the largest number in many years.

Nov. 27 - Hugo Chávez today asked for and received permission from Venezuela's National Assembly to leave the country, for the purpose of unspecified medical treatment in Cuba. The request, required by Venezuelan law, did not indicate how long Chávez expected to be away. The logical presumption is that whatever procedures he'll undergo in Havana are cancer-related.

Dec. 12 - Venezuela's vice president told the nation to be "serenely prepared" for "difficult scenarios" which may unfold over the next few days. Chávez had yet another surgery for removal of cancerous tissue this week, which both the government and the president's loyal supporters have acknowledged is by far the most serious in his 18 month battle with an officially undisclosed form of the illness. After several trips between Caracas and Havana in recent days, Chávez remains in critical condition in a Cuban hospital. Before he left home, he publicly stated that vice president Nicolás Maduro was ready to take the reins should he become incapacitated. It was the most direct admission yet by Chávez that the many dire prognostications of his early demise may soon be proved accurate.

Jan. 8, 2013 - A constitutional crisis is looming in Venezuela tonight, as the Chávez government confirms that the president is far too ill to return to Caracas by Jan. 10, the legally appointed day for his swearing in. His supporters have asked that he be allowed to take the oath at a later day before the nation's supreme court, or perhaps take it on Thursday by telephone or an electronic appearance before the court. Opponents object, saying such a procedure would be unlawful, but the government contends that because Chávez was validly re-elected, the date he takes the oath is immaterial.

Previous MGRR reports:
Hugo Chávez, once more to Havana
Hugo Chávez' condition in dispute after his latest cancer treatment in Cuba
Chávez returns to Cuba for more surgery
Ex-diplomat says Chávez has 6 months; warns of Venezuelan "narco-generals"
With Russian arms on the way, Hugo Chávez warns, "we're not Libya"
Hugo Chávez suffers renal failure; said to be in grave condition
Hugo Chávez returns home after latest chemotherapy - and he's full of big news
Bolivia's Eva Morales condemns United States at Havana ceremony
Rampant street crime in Venezuela

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