March 13, 2013 / 1:00 AM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 4-Venezuela to probe Chavez cancer poisoning accusation

* Claim first raised by Chavez after 2011 diagnosis
    * Maduro wants to keep voters focused on late president
    * Capriles trying to divorce Maduro from Chavez
    * Campaign for April 14 vote off to an ugly start

 (Adds Capriles tweets)
    By Andrew Cawthorne
    CARACAS, March 12 (Reuters) - Venezuela will set up a formal
inquiry into claims that deceased President Hugo Chavez's cancer
was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad, the
government said.
    Foes of the government view the accusation as a typical
Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of
"imperialist" threats to Venezuela's socialist system and
distract people from daily problems.
    Acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to open an
investigation into the claims, first raised by Chavez after he
was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.
    "We will seek the truth," Maduro told regional TV network
Telesur. "We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was
poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way."
    Foreign scientists will be invited to join a state committee
to probe the accusation, he said.    
     
    Maduro, 50, is Chavez's handpicked successor and is running
as the government's candidate in a snap presidential election on
April 14 that was triggered by the president's death last week.
    He is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on
Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his
millions of supporters. The opposition is centering its campaign
on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent
who, they say, is exploiting Chavez's demise. 
    "Let's take the president (Chavez) away from the political
debate, out of respect for his memory, his family, his
supporters," opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' campaign
chief Henri Falcon told reporters.
    Polls from before Chavez's death gave Maduro a lead over
Capriles of more than 10 percentage points. Capriles lost to
Chavez by 11 percentage points in October.    
    Capriles has tried to jump-start his campaign with
accusations that Maduro and other senior officials lied about
the details of Chavez's illness, hiding the gravity of his
condition from Venezuelans. 
    That sparked a torrent of attacks, with senior government
officials using words like "Nazi" and "fascist" to describe
Capriles, who has Jewish ancestors.
    In a televised message, Information Minister Ernesto
Villegas read a letter to the "sick opposition" from the late
president's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, who has at times
been viewed as a possible future successor.
    "Stop playing with the pain of a nation and a devastated
family," she wrote. "It is unfair, inhuman, unacceptable that
they now say we were lying about the date of his (death) ...
Focus on politics, don't play dirty."
    Capriles was quick to respond with a flurry of tweets.
    "Never, in all these years, have I offended the president or
his family. If one word has been taken thus by his family, I'm
sorry," he wrote on Twitter.
    "I don't offend families as they have mine. They have even
called me a Nazi, when my great-grandparents were murdered in a
Nazi concentration camp," he added, referring to the government.
       
    ACCUSATIONS FLYING
    In an increasingly acrimonious campaign, both sides on
Tuesday accused each other of planning violence.
    The opposition displayed photos circulating on the Internet
showing an assault rifle and a pistol being held up to a TV
screen that was broadcasting Capriles' face. 
    They also said there were indications of plans to attack
Capriles when he was scheduled to register his candidacy on
Monday. In the end, aides went instead.
    Government spokesmen repeated accusations that opposition
activists planned to disrupt Maduro's campaign.
    Trying to discredit Capriles, they waved photos of a plush
New York apartment they said belonged to him, and displayed
copies of university documents that they said showed he never
completed a law degree.
    Capriles, a 40-year-old, business-friendly regional governor
running for the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition, is
trying to disassociate Maduro from Chavez in voters' minds.
    "He's attacking Nicolas Maduro, saying Nicolas is not
Chavez," senior Socialist Party official and Maduro's campaign
chief Jorge Rodriguez said.
    "Of course Nicolas isn't Chavez. But he is his faithful,
responsible, revolutionary son. All these insults and
vilification are going to be turned into votes for us," he said.
    Tuesday was the last day of official mourning for Chavez,
although ceremonies appear set to continue. His embalmed body
was to be taken in procession to a military museum on Friday.
    Millions have filed past Chavez's coffin to pay homage to a
man who was adored by many of the poor for his humble roots and
welfare policies, but was also hated by many people for his
authoritarian style and bullying of opponents. 
    Though Maduro has spoken about combating crime and extending
development programs in the slums, he has mostly used his
frequent appearances on state TV to talk about Chavez. 
    The 58-year-old president was diagnosed with cancer in his
pelvic region in June 2011 and underwent four surgeries before
dying of what sources said was metastasis in the lungs.
    Maduro said it was too early to specifically point a finger
over Chavez's cancer, but noted that the United States had
laboratories with experience in producing diseases.
    "He had a cancer that broke all norms," Maduro told Telesur.
"Everything seems to indicate that they (enemies) affected his
health using the most advanced techniques."
    Maduro has compared his suspicions over Chavez's death with
allegations that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004
from poisoning by Israeli agents.
    The case echoes Chavez's long campaign to convince the world
that his idol and Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar
died of poisoning by his enemies in Colombia in 1830.
    
    OPPOSITION'S UPHILL FIGHT 
    The National Assembly was to debate this week a proposal by
pro-government legislators to hold a referendum - possibly also
on April 14 - on whether he should be buried at the ornate
National Pantheon building in Caracas.
    Opponents are outraged at the prospect of a referendum
stoking the emotion around Chavez at the same time as the
presidential vote.
    Besides the wave of sympathy for Chavez, the opposition
faces a well-financed state apparatus, institutions packed with
government supporters, and problems within its own
rank-and-file, still demoralized over October's presidential
election defeat and a mauling at gubernatorial polls in
December.  
    At stake in the election is the future of Chavez's leftist
"revolution," the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and
other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around
Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia. 
    The OPEC nation boasts the world's largest oil reserves.
    Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement
between Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat
worsened on Monday when Washington expelled two Venezuelan
diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

 (Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Simon Gardner, Pablo
Garibian and Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Daniel Wallis and
Stacey Joyce)
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