CARACAS — Cancer may force Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to do what neither his allies nor his adversaries could convince him to do in 12 years in office: limit his speeches and public appearances and stop micromanaging.
Chavez revealed late on Thursday from Cuba that he had a cancerous tumor removed, but he gave no specific date for his return home, fueling speculation about how the OPEC oil producer would be ruled in his absence. He and his ministers insisted that he remains fully in charge.
But physical absence and illness risk crimping his governing style and weakening his control over an unwieldy ruling coalition that is held together by his larger-than-life leadership. They could also diminish his capacity to campaign for a 2012 presidential election.
"This is certainly an indictment of the over-centralization of power in one figure, which is always a risk for democracy," said Eileen Gavin, an analyst with U.K.-based Latin American Newsletters.
"He makes every election a referendum on himself and that's certainly going to be the case in the election in 2012, which is going to be his toughest election yet," she added.
Staying out of the public eye, and most of all staying quiet, are anathema to a leader whose political identity is built on hours-long meandering speeches, daily appearances in slums or social projects and constant contact with poor supporters who make up his base.
And sustaining an enormously personalized administration may be a struggle for a government in which cabinet members make few major decisions without Chavez's direct consent and state institutions are notably slower moving in his absence.
With no clear successor in line to replace him, delegating responsibilities could raise tensions between the civil and military factions of his coalition, which may begin jockeying for power if Chavez remains in Cuba for an undetermined period to recover from a so-far unspecified type of cancer.
"Venezuela is not going to collapse while Chavez is away in Havana, but the government's work is not going to have the same level of visibility or electoral impact as when Chavez is at the helm," said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst for Latin America at ratings agency Moody's.
OBSESSION WITH DETAIL
Chavez appears to be paying the price for his nearly superhuman pace of speeches and television appearances, which for years wore down even his ministers and closest allies.
In one Middle East tour, Chavez came on state television in the early hours of the morning at his location to speak about Venezuelan history with his entire cabinet in tow -- most of whom were visibly unable to stay awake.
He has over the years shown an obsessive fascination with the minutiae of state-run operations such as food processing facilities or petrochemicals plants, asking a barrage of questions about the function of specific levers or valves.
Ministers in off-the-record chats admit to being awakened by dawn phone calls from the president seeking detailed information on social projects or public works.
Chavez himself has noted the problems created by his day-to-day personalized involvement, particularly his penchant for dealing with individual pleas from supporters seeking assistance, such as money for an operation or a wheelchair for an ailing relative.
"Fidel (Castro) has always told me, Chavez, you can't be the mayor of Venezuela," Chavez has said. The former Cuban leader, Chavez's mentor and friend, had the same micro-managing mania until illness forced him to hand over to his brother.
To some extent Chavez's illness has already forced a shift in government style, with Vice President Elias Jaua and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro taking the lead on issues that in the past would have been directly handled by Chavez.
"We think a change in the totally Chavez-dependent style of government is to be expected," said Barclays Capital analyst Alejandro Grisanti in a research note.
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