The end of Hugo Chavez

New documents purportedly show the Venezuelan president is seriously ill

Spain’s ABC newspaper is claiming to have accessed classified medical records indicating that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have only one year to live unless he undergoes more aggressive treatments for prostate cancer. The paper refers to results from Chavez’s tests on Dec. 30, 2011, and quotes a medical diagnosis stating his cancer has “clearly” continued to metastasize “into his bones and spine.” Additionally, the president has developed a new tumour “of about 2.0 by 1.5 millimeters” in his colon, the report says. Doctors quoted in the documents conclude that Chavez has between nine and 12 months to live, barring “a more intense treatment,” which the president has apparently refused to take so far, is followed.

The president’s office is not releasing any information on his health, and the authenticity of the ABC source cannot be independently confirmed. However, it’s not the first time the media speculates the Venezuelan president’s days are counted. Last November, the Wall Street Journal reported similar news based on information from a European intelligence agency.

Chavez has been in power since 1999, and was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2011. He has undergone surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy since then, with part of his treatment taking place in Cuba. The ABC report doesn’t specify the nature of the “more intense” treatments available to him, but the reason he may be rejecting them could have a lot to do with a looming presidential election this October. So far, Chavez’s illness has been a major distraction, and an aggressive treatment could pull him away during the crucial last months of a campaign.

Chavez needs all the campaigning he can muster. While his popularity spiked last year based on news about his health, this year could be a different story. His fitness to govern is under question and Venezuelans are getting nervous. Luis Vicente Leon, president of the polling firm Datanalisis, thinks a visibly ailing Chavez won’t earn him more sympathy in an election year. “When you’re voting, you’re buying a future,” he says. If voters can tell the president is not fit to govern, “the impact on his popularity will be negative.”

If there is any truth to these latest medical reports, Chavez could be dead, if not critically ill, by the time the election takes place on Oct. 7. Even a victory would be no solace. Would Chavez be healthy enough to lead his country for another six-year term? With no anointed successor in sight, the question becomes even more pressing for voters.

While the strongman’s body falters, the opposition’s health is improving. For the first time since Chavez has been in office, opposition parties will hold a primary election to agree on a unified candidate. Henrique Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, is currently the favourite to win the primary next Feb. 12.

In truth, even with a strong unified voice, the opposition faces an uphill battle. Chavez remains popular. His favourable rating is somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent, depending on the polling firm. Like in every other election he has faced, Chavez will make sure his government puts all its weight on ensuring his victory. But no matter how strong, this year’s greatest wild card is the man himself. And the opposition could find itself fighting a ghost—perhaps one it can beat—come October.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.