Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez salutes as he greets supporters while appearing with his daughters Rosa, left, and Maria on a balcony of Miraflores Palace soon after his return to the country from Cuba, where he underwent surgery and treatment for cancer [REUTERS]
Venezuela's political chessboard has shifted as a result of President Hugo Chávez's illness and convalescence in Cuba. His surprise return on Monday has opened questions about how the game will be played in the future.
"I'm here, happy to be home, and I will be with you from my command post in the heart of Caracas and Venezuela. Although, of course, I never left; I never went away. I am always with you," Chávez said on state television as soon as his plane landed.
In a June 30 speech broadcast from Havana after weeks with no official word and widespread rumours and uncertainty over his health, the 56-year-old president acknowledged that he had been convalescing since June11 from surgery for a pelvic abscess in which a cancerous tumour was removed.
"This is the start of my return. I have gone back to the routine of a cadet, with strict timetables, medical check-ups and rehabilitation," he said. Chávez was referring to his army career, in which he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1992, when he led a failed coup d'état.
He announced he might not attend the July 5 military parade and other ceremonies to commemorate Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence.
Still in control
During the four weeks he spent in Cuba, in spite of undergoing two operations, Chávez and his advisers insisted that he was kept up-to-date on government affairs, exercising full presidential powers. During this period, Vice President Elías Jaua rejected calls by the opposition for him to temporarily replace the president.
The vice president, who is appointed, not elected, in Venezuela, hinted that Chávez would run again for the presidency in 2012, saying "this return is the start of battles and future victories we will have as a people, with him [Chávez] as leader."
To have delegated executive power to the vice president, even for a few days, would have been "another blow for Chávez's followers, at least one-third of the electorate, who were already crushed by the loneliness caused by their leader's physical breakdown," said Oscar Schémel, an analyst and head of the polling firm Hinterlaces.
"Venezuela's political process since 1999 has been headed by a leader who inspires devotion that is more religious than political, and is perceived as someone who loves the poor and wants what is good for the people," said Schémel.
"To his grassroots followers, their leader is everything, and without him they fear the loss of what they have gained or are about to gain," he added.
From the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela's lowliest activist to leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba, everyone recognises that Chávez is essential for the evolution of the "Bolivarian revolution", as he calls the process of change ushered in since he took office in 1999, into "21st century socialism".
As an expression of that continuity, Chávez has already launched his candidacy for the elections due in the second half of 2012, when a president will be chosen for the next six-year term, 2013-2019.
Carlos Romero, a professor of doctoral students in political science at the Central University, said: "These days, uncertainty and caution are the watchwords, in view of at least three scenarios for the Venezuelan electoral panorama."
The first is for the president to stand as a candidate, as his opponents had been expecting until a month ago; the second is for Chávez to attempt to become a candidate, but fail; and the third is for him to physically be unable to run for reelection
In the third scenario, "emphasising the continuity of Chávez's legacy will be vital in governing party propaganda," Schémel predicted.
Luis León, head of the Datanalysis polling firm, feels the opposition "should not relax in the present circumstances. On the contrary, it should prepare itself for a tough battle, and present a united front and real proposals that are attractive to voters."
Alternatives to Chávez "can no longer present themselves simply as the opposition, but must appeal to national unity and human values, with an emphasis on convincing social policies," Schémel said.
In the competition between candidates, political scientist José Vicente Carrasquero said: "The relative disadvantage faced by a Chávez who is convalescent or threatened by health problems, compared with a political rival who will probably be much younger."
The opposition Democratic Unity Coalition will meet to select their candidate in primaries scheduled for early 2012. The presidential hopefuls with the greatest chances are governor Henrique Capriles of the central state of Miranda, Pablo Pérez, the governor of the western state of Zulia, and Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a Caracas municipality, although he is temporarily disqualified because of corruption. All three politicians are barely 40 years old.
In his favour, Chávez has not only massive recognition by the population, but also the tacit support of the entire state structure.
The unknown variable in the short term is whether his illness, convalescence and recovery will be used to forge a new propaganda tool to rebuild the president's popularity, which according to some polls has been eroded by 12 years in power, or whether they will block his prospects of electoral victory.
If the latter is the case, his party would need to select a new candidate, a move for which the party is unprepared as there is no heir-apparent who could step into Chávez's shoes.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.