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Published: Wednesday January 2, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 22, 2013 MYT 4:23:22 PM

Venezuela frets over ill Chavez as 2013 begins

CARACAS: Somber Venezuelans began 2013 fretting over their ubiquitous and garrulous leader Hugo Chavez, wondering what the future holds as the president wages a tough battle with cancer in a Havana hospital.

Chavez won re-election in October and is supposed to be sworn in on January 10, but that seemed in jeopardy Tuesday, stoking the prospect of major upheaval in a nation that has the world's largest proven oil reserves.

If Chavez, who has dominated Venezuelan political life since taking power in 1999, dies or is declared incapacitated before his inauguration the constitution demands that new elections be called within 30 days.

As Chavez's health crisis has deepened, his handpicked political heir, vice president Nicolas Maduro, a burly and mustachioed former bus driver and union leader, has been trying to look more prominent and statesmanlike.

But the key question is whether Chavismo, Chavez's left-wing movement, which is marked by patronage and generous government handouts to the poor, can survive without him.

If new elections are held, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave the comandante a good run for his money in the October election, might prevail and seek to begin a new era.

For now, both the government and the opposition are leaving open the possibility of postponing the inauguration, depending on how Chavez's health evolves.

Less than two years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the country without the larger-than-life Chavez at the helm.

His outsized personality and bombastic style of governing did not permit the ascension of an heir apparent within his United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

But before leaving for Cuba in December, Chavez anointed Maduro his successor, and for many that signaled that the process of transition had begun.

Venezuelans began 2013 pondering what political life without Chavez might be like.

New Year's Eve revelry was tempered, and official acts - two open air concerts - were canceled outright out of respect for the ex-paratrooper who has irked the United States for years by aligning his country with such countries as Iran, Cuba and Syria.

Chavez underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery three weeks ago in Havana and has been bed-ridden ever since.

Information on his condition is scant, with the government admitting only to "complications" in his recovery.

Venezuela's foreign ministry did issue a statement in Chavez's name on Tuesday, congratulating key ally and Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel on the 54th anniversary of the island's communist revolution.

It celebrated "brotherly solidarity" with Cuba, which since the fall of the Soviet Union has become increasingly dependent on heavily subsidized oil from Venezuela.

Elsewhere in Latin America, leftist allies expressed hope for, and even prayed for, Chavez's recovery.

"I am very sorry that our Latin American brother Hugo Chavez, our comrade in the fight, an anti-imperialist comrade, a revolutionary, is facing such a difficult situation regarding his health," said Bolivian President Evo Morales.

In Venezuela, Twitter has been rampant with comments and rumors that Chavez, the tough-talking 58-year-old face of the populist left in Latin America, is fading fast or even dead already.

From Havana, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza - the president's brother in law - fired back, seeking to restore calm.

"Countrymen, do NOT believe mean-spirited rumors." Arreaza tweeted. "President Chavez spent the day quietly and in stable condition, in the company of his children," the minister wrote on Monday evening.

Even Capriles, the 40-year-old opposition leader, warned Venezuelans to refrain. "Let us not fall victim to the trap of rumors and hatred," Capriles tweeted. "Let's spend energy on building, not destroying."

Since Chavez left for Cuba more than three weeks ago, he has not appeared in public, nor have photos of him been published - something highly rare for a man who is usually all over the media in one form or another.

Chavez had declared himself cancer free in July, more than a year after being diagnosed with the disease in the pelvic region.

The exact nature of the cancer has never been made public and no official medical report has been released. - AFP

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