Viva El Presidente? Hugo Chavez Again Suffers Health Issues During Recovery In Venezeula

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By Ryan Villarreal | February 23, 2013 9:00 AM EST

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is still suffering health complications from a lung infection he contracted in Cuba following cancer surgery there two months ago, Caracas officials reported.

"The breathing insufficiency that emerged post-operation persists and the tendency has not been favorable, so it is still being treated," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a televised statement.

Chavez, who returned to Venezuela from Cuba Monday, remains hospitalized and was unable to meet with fellow socialist leader President Evo Morales of Bolivia this week due to the state of his health.

“I wasn’t able to meet him, I was only able to meet with the head doctor and family, but my understanding is that they are very encouraged,” Morales told reporters in New York after stopping in Venezuela, the Bloomberg news agency reported.

“Sometimes diseases, illnesses are difficult to fight,” he added. “You must understand that he’s gone through the most difficult moments of his life.”

Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011, though the Venezuelan government has not disclosed what type, nor provided many details on the severity of his illness. He has travelled to Cuba periodically for medical treatment, undergoing four operations to date.

Chavez’s health has further declined following his re-election last October and he has yet to be officially inaugurated into a new six-year term.

As Venezuela’s pre-eminent leader since 1999, uncertainty over an increasingly probable transition in leadership weighs heavily on the government of South America’s largest oil-exporting country.

In December, Chavez appointed Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his political successor. Under the Venezuelan constitution new elections must be held if Chavez leaves office within the first four years of his term.

Chavez, drawing funds from Venezuela’s nationalized oil industry, has implemented extensive social welfare programs, providing universal access to healthcare and primary education while expanding public housing, which largely benefits the country’s poor and working class majority.

Critics argue that Chavez has failed to re-invest oil profits back into the industry, leading to stagnation in productivity and a lapse in safety regulations.

In the run-up to the 2012 elections, the political opposition was careful not to push privatization of the oil industry and risk alienating many low-income voters, but discussed diversifying Venezuela’s oil export-dependent economy to protect against swings in global prices and falling production, as well as to draw in increased foreign investment.

NPR’s Tom Gjelten recently said that foreign markets have been anticipating a departure of Chavez from power.

“The last few days have seen a rally in Venezuelan bonds,” Gjelten said in a radio interview last month. “Some investors figure the Venezuelan economy would improve if Chavez were out of the picture. Whether that's a good bet is another matter.”

Another guest on the program, Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group Consultancy, said she is advising her clients not to be overly optimistic about the sudden opening up of Venezuela’s economy in a post-Chavez scenario.

“I think investors tend to really under-appreciate the risks involved with a transition scenario, particularly given the country's deep political polarization and also the dire shape of the economy,” Grais-Targow said.

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