Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned to Cuba for
treatment. REUTERS/Handout/Miraflores Palace
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was back in Cuba today
for cancer-linked medical treatment that revived questions
about the viability of his socialist rule and left Venezuelans
again guessing about his exact condition.
After weeks of scarce public appearances, Chavez, 58,
announced in a letter on Tuesday that he was going to Havana
for therapy known as "hyperbaric oxygenation" - a method used
to reduce bone decay caused by radiation therapy.
In Cuba, Chavez enjoys the friendship of past and present
Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, plus guaranteed privacy
on the tightly controlled Caribbean island.
Venezuelans, who have been endlessly speculating about
Chavez's cancer since it was diagnosed in mid-2011, were not
sure what to make of the latest twist - debating whether it
was normal post-radiation treatment or a serious downturn.
"I really don't know what he has," Chavez's cousin, Guillermo
Frias, told Reuters from the president's rural hometown state
Barinas. "But anyway, I always pray for him every night. I
stop at a shrine on the corner and always remember him.
"I hope he recovers fine. I'm sure he will. The election
campaign was tough for him. He went too far."
Though he had declared himself cured, Chavez appeared
exhausted at the end of his successful presidential
re-election bid in October. He later admitted radiation had
taken its toll.
The normally garrulous and omnipresent leader has made only a
few, relatively short public appearances, mainly on state TV,
at his presidential palace since his victory on October 7.
One opposition newspaper dubbed him "The Invisible Man".
Unlike multiple past trips to Cuba, during treatment for
three operations on two tumors in his pelvic area, state TV
did not show images of Chavez departing or arriving this
Chavez has open-ended authorization from Congress to travel,
but aims to be back at least for the Jan. 10 start of his new
term, if not for a couple of regional summits before.
His absence leaves newly appointed Vice President Nicolas
Maduro, 49 - a former bus driver and union leader - in a
prominent position amid speculation among Venezuelans over
who could replace Chavez should he leave power.
Congress head Diosdado Cabello, a former military comrade of
Chavez, is also often touted as a possible successor to lead
the ruling Socialist Party. Under the constitution, an
election would have to be held if Chavez were to leave office
within the first four years of his new six-year term.
Chavez's return to Cuba overshadowed the buildup to state
elections in Venezuela on Dec. 16, where the opposition aims
to overcome disappointment at their failure to win the
A prolonged absence by Chavez could potentially postpone
major policy decisions, such as a widely expected devaluation
of the bolivar currency after heavy pre-election state