Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez attend a rally outside Miraflores Palace in Caracas. Photo by Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remained on his sickbed in
Cuba on today while thousands of supporters rallied in his
honour on the day he should have been sworn in for a new
six-year term in the South American OPEC nation.
The postponement of the inauguration, a first in Venezuelan
history, has laid bare the gravity of Chavez's condition
after complications from a fourth cancer operation in his
It has also left his chosen heir, Vice President Nicolas
Maduro - a former bus driver who shares his boss's radical
socialist views - in charge of day-to-day government until
there is clarity over whether Chavez will recover.
The president, whose legendary energy and garrulous dominance
of the airwaves had often made him seem omnipresent in
Venezuela since taking power in 1999, has not been seen in
public nor heard from since his surgery on December 11.
"Only God knows what will happen," William Medina, a
49-year-old worker, told Reuters amid crowds of red-clad
supporters milling around the presidential palace, many
waving banners and posters bearing their hero's face.
"But we are ready to take on what he taught us, because each
one of us is a Chavez. We are ready to continue with
socialism, because that is the only way to save planet
Venezuela's 29 million people are anxiously watching what
could be the last chapter in the extraordinary life of
Chavez, who grew up in a rural shack and went on to become
one of the world's best-known and most controversial heads of
The saga also has huge implications for the likes of Cuba and
other leftist allies in Latin America that have benefited for
years from Chavez's subsidized oil and other largesse.
A clutch of foreign friends, including the presidents of
Uruguay, Bolivia, Haiti and Nicaragua, attended events in
Caracas despite Chavez's absence.
"We have to express our solidarity at this enormously
difficult time for a man who remembered my people, who did
not turn his back," said Uruguayan President Jose Mujica,
referring to Chavez's aid policies around Latin America.
"You hardly see that sort of solidarity anywhere in the world
... Chavez's mark is a deep one, and let's hope he can
overcome illness," the former leftist guerrilla told Telesur,
a TV network set up by Chavez to counter Western media
The Miraflores palace, the focus of the rally, has been the
scene of some of the biggest dramas of Chavez's rule, from
protests in 2002 and a coup that toppled him briefly, to
speeches after election wins and emotional returns from
previous cancer treatments in Havana.
Venezuela's opposition leaders are furious at what they see
as a Cuban-inspired manipulation of the constitution by
Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly,
and other Chavez allies aimed at preventing the naming of a
caretaker president due to Chavez's absence.
Henrique Capriles, who lost October's presidential election
to Chavez, said the opposition had no plans to risk violence
by encouraging supporters to hold a counter-demonstration.
"Who wins from a conflict scenario?" he asked. "They win, the
pseudo-leaders who are not the owners of the country."
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas advised American citizens in
Venezuela to exercise caution during the next few days.
A top Venezuelan military officer told state TV the borders
were being reinforced and security forces were patrolling to
bring people "a sense of peace and tranquility."
With government updates short on details, little is known
about Chavez's actual medical condition and rumors are
The government's version is that Chavez suffered
complications including a severe lung infection after the
latest surgery. But speculation is rife on Twitter that he
may be on life support or at risk of major organ failure.
He has undergone four operations, as well as weeks of
chemotherapy and radiation treatment, since being diagnosed
with an undisclosed type of cancer in his pelvic area in June
He looked to have staged a remarkable recovery from the
illness last year, winning a new six-year term in a
hard-fought election in October. But within weeks of his
victory he had to return to Havana for more treatment.
'Revolution must continue'
In contrast with previous trips to Cuba, the government has
not released any photos or video of him recuperating, and
Chavez has not made any phone calls home to state media,
fueling the impression that his condition is dire.
Though supporters maintain vigils and express hope he will
recover, there appears to be a growing acceptance he may not,
and a slow adjustment to the idea of a post-Chavez Venezuela.
"We are all necessary but nobody should be irreplaceable and
the revolutionary process in our America must continue," said
his friend and close ally, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
Though often viewed in the West as a clownish autocrat,
Chavez has a kinder image in developing nations where many
admire his defiance of the United States and efforts to
improve the lives of Venezuela's poor.
At home, Chavez has a cult-like appeal for many in the slums
due to his "anti-imperialist" rhetoric, his pumping of crude
oil revenue into welfare projects, and his own humble
But Venezuela is deeply split, with opponents saying he has
squandered an unprecedented bonanza of oil money with
misguided policies. They also accuse him of allowing
corruption to flourish and oppressing political opponents and
Should Chavez die or step down, a new election would be
called and it would likely pit Maduro against opposition
leader Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.
Analysts say Maduro would be hard to beat given Chavez's
personal blessing and the emotional outpouring from
supporters if the president were forced to leave office,
though past polls have shown Capriles to be more popular than
the vice president.
In a sign a Maduro-led government would continue Chavez's
tough treatment of foes, a state regulator has started
punitive proceedings against opposition TV station
Globovision for causing "anxiety" with its coverage of the
Western investors generally hope for a more business-friendly
government in Venezuela so prices of its widely traded bonds
have soared over the last few weeks on Chavez's health woes.
But they dipped this week as their expectations of a quick
change apparently dimmed.