Hugo Chávez is in critical condition in the Cuban hospital where he recently underwent pelvic surgery, according to a report in El Nuevo Herald.
The firebrand leader was hospitalized June 10 in Havana for what officials said was an operation for a pelvic abscess. He was last seen in public on June 9, and the public hadn’t heard from him since June 12 until he took to Twitter Friday to tell Venezuelans he is recovering.
But actually, Chávez is in "critical condition, not grave, but critical, in a complicated situation," according to the Spanish language Miami newspaper, as reported on Fox News Latino
The paper quoted U.S. intelligence officials who want to remain anonymous.
Chávez’s silence prompted speculation in Venezuela that the socialist leader has prostate cancer. Intelligence officials could not confirm a diagnosis of prostate cancer, but Chávez family members went to Cuba in the past 72 hours, according to wire service EFE.
Cuba's state media website, Cubadebate, released photos on June 17 that showed Chávez posing with Fidel and Raul Castro in his hospital room.
Meanwhile, news of his illness puts leaders in Venezuela in an awkward position. It's unclear who might replace him. Until recently, even contemplating that possibility would have been considered absurd, The Associated Press reports.
Under Venezuela's constitution, Vice President Elias Jaua would take the president's place during "temporary" absences of up to 90 days. And Jaua would serve the rest of Chavez's six-year term if the socialism-preaching president were to die or resign.
With a presidential election looming next year, such a scenario might put Jaua and other ruling party leaders in a tough position.
None of Chavez's close confidants shares his charisma and knack for connecting with Venezuela's poor majority. That constituency has decided elections in the politically divided South American country.
Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East, told AP that the future of Chavez's political movement would depend largely on whether ill health prevented Chavez from designating a successor.
"There is no second-in-command in the Chavez movement," Ellner said. "If Chavez is unable to endorse anyone, there will inevitably be dissension."
The situation would be much different if Chavez threw his support behind a would-be successor.
"There is a great sense of loyalty within the Chavez movement," he said. "If Chavez himself is unable to run for physical reasons, but endorses a given candidate, the movement will not fall apart."
Although there are no obvious candidates, some observers believe the president might tap Jaua or Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's energy minister.
Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who joined a 1992 coup attempt that Chavez led, once was perceived as Chavez's closest confidant. But Cabello's standing seems to have faded since he lost a 2008 re-election bid as the governor of Miranda state to a prominent opposition leader.
Venezuelan officials have limited their comments on Chavez's health to saying he's recuperating but have provided few details.
Jaua told an auditorium packed with government supporters Sunday that Chavez "is recuperating to continue the battle."
He denounced Chavez's opponents for speculating about the president's health, accusing them of using the president's surgery to score political points before the next presidential election.
"They know they cannot beat our commander, Hugo Chavez, in an election," he said, adding: "Chavez is going to be around for a long time."
Meanwhile, Chavez's Twitter stream has been active while not providing any information about his health. One message on Friday saluted Venezuela's military on a holiday marking a decisive independence battle. Three messages appeared within 30 minutes Saturday afternoon, including one mentioning visits by Chavez's daughter Rosines and grandchildren.
"Ah, what happiness it is to receive this shower of love!" the Twitter message read. "God bless them!"
It remains unclear when he will return to Venezuela.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuelans on Friday to wish for Chavez's complete recovery and express their "most authentic love so that his health is re-established."
"The battle that President Chavez is waging for his health must be everyone's battle: the battle for life, for the immediate future of our fatherland," Maduro added.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said he thinks some people "are jumping the gun" by expressing doubts on Chavez's health and raising questions about a potential successor.
"I imagine that Chavez is enjoying this because people seem so concerned about his health," Tinker Salas said. "I can imagine him joking about all this speculation in front of a crowd of supporters" sometime in the near future.
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