CARACAS Dec 13 Venezuelans put aside political
differences on Thursday and prayed for ailing President Hugo
Chavez, who is in delicate condition after a fourth operation
for cancer that could cut short his mercurial 14-year rule.
The former soldier, who won re-election in the deeply
polarized OPEC nation just two months ago, had a six-hour
operation in Cuba on Tuesday after a third bout with cancer in
his pelvic region.
The charismatic leader's downturn threatens to upend a
self-styled socialist revolution that has divided voters.
Lavish spending of oil revenue has led millions to hail him
as a modern-day liberator, while his concentration of power and
attacks on private businesses have infuriated adversaries who
call him a fledgling dictator.
But for now even some of his fierce opponents have voiced
support for the ailing Chavez.
"The truth is that as Christians we have to wish that the
president gets better," said opposition legislator Ismael
Garcia, who also insisted the government provide more
information about Chavez's condition. "I hope he improves and
comes back to take on his responsibilities as head of state."
The president has refused to divulge the details of the
cancer diagnosed in mid-2011 and has twice declared he was
completely cured - only to later undergo more surgery.
The ashen faces of Cabinet ministers and somber tone of the
terse official statements since the operation appear to suggest
top government officials are preparing for the worst.
On Saturday, Chavez anointed Vice President Nicolas Maduro
as his heir apparent in case he had to step down - the first
time since he took office in 1999 that he has named a successor.
Chavez won re-election by a big margin in October and starts
a new six-year term on Jan. 10. According to the constitution,
if he is unable to do so, a new election must be held within 30
"My only wish is that the president takes the reins of the
country on January 10, 2013," said Henrique Capriles, the
opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October. "The country is
filled with problems that need to be solved."
Maduro, a 50-year-old former union organizer and loyal
Chavez disciple who is also seen as a pragmatic moderate, would
be the ruling party's candidate.
Top military commanders, along with Cabinet ministers and an
auditorium of officers, sang hymns on Wednesday in an emotional
Mass to pray for the president's recovery.
But officials have also begun cautiously preparing people
for the reality that he may not survive.
"At the same time as we pray, we should be ready to turn our
sadness and pain into a force that can mobilize the people,"
said Aristobulo Isturiz, a top Chavez ally, at a rally of
thousands of somber red-clad supporters.
State television has filled airwaves with teary-eyed praise
for the cancer-stricken leader, with one spot featuring a woman
calling Chavez "a second Jesus Christ."
Even if he dies, Chavez is likely to cast a long shadow over
Venezuela's political landscape for years to come - not unlike
Argentine leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism is still the
ideological foundation of the country's dominant political
Elections shortly after the Venezuelan leader's death could
create an awkward scenario for the opposition. Campaigning on
day-to-day concerns such as crime and inflation would be
difficult in such an emotionally-charged atmosphere.
The implications of Chavez's illness go far beyond
Venezuela. Regional allies, most notably Cuba, have for years
relied on him for subsidized oil and fuel shipments.
It could also slow the resurgence of the left in Latin
America and weaken a global "anti-imperialist" alliance
stretching as far as Syria and Iran that has sought to undermine
the influence of the United States.
Energy companies are keenly eyeing events and hope that a
change in government will lead to greater access to the
country's vast crude reserves - the world's largest. Years of
combative state takeovers have alienated major oil firms.
And investors that pack their portfolios with Venezuelan
bonds, among the highest-yielding and most widely traded
emerging market debt, are hoping for more fiscal responsibility
after a year of blowout campaign spending.
The health saga has overshadowed elections for state
governors on Sunday, in which the opposition hopes to retain
seven of the country's 23 governorships. The key vote in that
race will be Capriles' re-election bid in Miranda.
If he loses, half a dozen other opposition figures could
emerge as candidates for the next presidential election,
potentially fracturing the opposition bloc's fragile unity.
Polls for the Miranda race are mixed, with one showing
Capriles way ahead and another giving his opponent, Chavez
protege and former vice president Elias Jaua a 5 percentage