Fighting Fit, Venezuela's Chavez Roars Back

Feb 9, 2012
Originally published on February 9, 2012 6:15 pm

Last year was a tough one for Venezuela's firebrand leftist president, Hugo Chavez, who has frequently taunted the United States during his 13 years in power.

In June, a cancerous tumor was discovered in Chavez's abdomen, forcing him to dramatically scale back public appearances as he sought treatment in Cuba. Some predicted that the end was near.

But this year, Chavez has returned to his outspoken ways — just in time for his re-election campaign.

A few days ago, he served as the president, commander in chief and emcee at a long military parade. He looked robust once more, his black hair back to normal from the chemotherapy.

At least from afar, Chavez appeared to be in fine form once again, as he sang to supporters lined up for the parade.

He then explained how the song is about his idol, independence hero Simon Bolivar, and how Bolivar rode his horse home to rebuild his country — Chavez's implication being that now the same can be said about him.

Outside his inner circle, of course, no one really knows for sure just how healthy he is. He has said only that doctors removed a baseball-size tumor, and that after four chemotherapy sessions, he is better than ever.

What is clear is that suddenly this year, Chavez seems to be everywhere, says Carlos Romero, a political scientist in Caracas. "He has been spending many hours in the Congress, in the national assembly; he has been spending many hours in front of journalists in the presidential palace; he has been traveling abroad; he has been traveling inside the country; he has been in some rallies in Venezuela," he says.

Romero says the strategy has had an impact. "People thought in June that Chavez will be out. We already have seen seven months and Chavez is not only recuperating his health but also is recuperating his leadership," Romero says.

Indeed, supporters like 62-year-old Hilda Rivera have been watching him on television. She says he is back for sure. "My president is fine," she says, explaining that she prayed and prayed for him to recover.

That kind of loyalty — which has helped Chavez stay in power since 1999 — has given him a spike in various polls ahead of October's presidential election.

Last week, at a festive event marking the 20th anniversary of his first attempt to gain power — a failed coup — Chavez characterized himself as a humble servant.

Chavez said that a revolution can't depend on one man — it's far too big for that.

And he revved up his followers, just days ahead of the opposition's first-ever primary to choose a candidate to run against Chavez — telling them that the old political guard would never return, no matter what kind of campaign is mounted against him.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, to Venezuela where firebrand leftist president Hugo Chavez had a tough year last year. In June, doctors found a cancerous tumor in his abdomen. Chavez sought treatment in Cuba and dramatically scaled back his public appearances. Some predicted the end was near.

But, this year, Chavez has regained his bluster just in time for his reelection campaign. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas, Venezuela.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Just days ago, there he was, president, commander-in-chief and emcee at a long military parade. He looked robust once more, his black hair back to normal from the chemotherapy. At least from afar, President Hugo Chavez appeared to, once again, be in fine form as he sang to supporters lined for the parade.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Singing in Foreign Language).

FORERO: He then explained how the song's about his idol, independent hero, Simon Bolivar, and how he rode his horse home to rebuild his country.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: Chavez's implication being that now the same can be said about him. Outside his inner circle, of course, no one really knows for sure just how healthy he is. He's only said that doctors removed a baseball-sized tumor and that, after four chemotherapy sessions, he's better than ever.

What is clear is that, suddenly this year, Chavez seems to be everywhere, says Carlos Romero, a political scientist here.

CARLOS ROMERO: He has been spending many hours in the Congress, in the National Assembly. He is spending many hours in front of journalists in the presidential palace. He has been traveling abroad. He has been traveling inside the country. He has been in some rallies in Venezuela.

FORERO: Romero says the strategy has had an impact.

ROMERO: People thought that Chavez will be out. We already have six, seven months and Chavez is not only recuperating his health, but also he's recuperating his leadership.

FORERO: Indeed, supporters like 62 year old Hilda Rivera have been watching him on television and she says he's back for sure.

HILDA RIVERA: (Through Translator) My president is fine, she says, explaining that she prayed and prayed for him to recover. That kind of loyalty, which has helped Chavez stay in power since 1999, has given him a spike in various polls, ahead of October's presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: At one festive event to mark the 20th anniversary of his first attempt to gain power, a failed coup, Chavez characterized himself as a humble servant.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: A revolution can't depend on just one man, Chavez says. A revolution is far too big for that. And he revved up his followers just days ahead of the opposition's first ever primary to choose a candidate to run against Chavez.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: Telling them that the old political guard would never return no matter what kind of campaign is mounted against him. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.