Despite Triumphant Return of Chavez, Questions About His Health Linger

Chavez returns to VenezuelaDressed in his customary military attire, President Chávez appeared a picture of health on Monday, ready to address anxious supporters and clarify speculations concerning his battle against cancer and his ability to lead the nation.

This has been a triumphant return for Chávez, who departed his homeland abruptly on June 10th to receive medical attention in Cuba. Appearing frail and apologetic in a national broadcast on Thursday, the president disclosed that he had recently undergone surgery to remove cancerous cells. Following weeks of speculation, citizens were faced with the possibility that their head of state would be incapable of returning to Venezuela for several months.

Chávez’ arrival on Monday thus came as a shock to citizens and opposition leaders alike. It seems that the president deliberately wished to surprise the nation: his plane landed at Maiquetia airport in the small hours of Monday morning in total darkness. When pictures of his recuperation in Cuba were released on Sunday, there was also no word that he was preparing to return to Caracas within a matter of hours.

There can be no question that the president was proud of his surprise return. He arrives just in time for Venezuela’s bicentennial celebrations, marking the country’s independence from Spain in 1811. For Chávez, who frequently compares his efforts for the socialist cause with Simon Bolivar’s struggles for Venezuelan independence, this return was a considerable personal triumph.

Indeed, addressing the nation from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday, Chávez asserted that he would win his battle for health. He thanked citizens for their support, declaring that this was “the best medicine for whatever illness.” Although he admitted that he would be unable to join the people in today’s official celebrations, he affirmed that his return to strength had begun. “I continue in charge,” he declared.

In spite of these statements, many remain skeptical over the timeline of Chávez’ road to recovery and the extent to which he will be able to resume customary duties in the weeks ahead. Since his departure for Cuba, Chávez’ ministers have regularly insisted that the president would be capable of addressing political responsibilities from his hospital bed in Havana. Although this support might be regarded as a clear vote of confidence in Chávez’ abilities, others have seen it as an indication of the fact that there is no obvious successor. President Chávez, who has acted as head of state for 12 years and survived an attempted coup in 2002, continues to be a dominant player in Venezuelan politics.

Opposition leaders have nonetheless been quick to highlight the government’s lack of transparency in coping with the president’s illness and recovery. According to the BBC’s Sarah Grainger, over the weeks since Chávez’ departure for Cuba, officials have consistently denied rumors of cancer, often insisting instead that the president was recuperating from the removal of a pelvic abscess. For one opposition lawmaker, Alfonso Marquina, these former assertions constitute a government betrayal. Marquina informed the Associated Press that greater responsibility needed to be taken “…not only on the president’s part but by all of those high in the government to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president’s real situation.”

Chávez’ extended stay in Cuba has already led to the postponement of a critical regional summit with Latin American and Caribbean leaders, which was scheduled to commence on Tuesday. Venezuela’s lack of affordable housing, high inflation, and recurring electricity shortages are just some of the issues which Chávez will need to meaningfully address if he intends to seek another presidential term. Nevertheless, the lack of a magnetic successor in his stead, coupled with his ingrained support among the poor, makes Chávez a fierce political competitor. If his health permits, it is still widely expected that he will run again for the presidential office in the 2012 elections.