Concern Rises Over Hugo Chavez's Health

The Venezuelan president hasn't been heard from or seen publicly since undergoing cancer surgery last month. How is the uncertainty affecting Venezuelans and their relations with the US? Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with NPR's Juan Forero.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, drug-related violence in Mexico has claimed thousands of lives in recent years and reporting on the drug war can also be deadly. We take a closer look at the dangers facing journalists in Mexico with the new documentary, "Reportero." That's in just a few minutes.

But in Venezuela, people are wondering if the country's larger-than-life president, Hugo Chavez, will ever come home. That's because Chavez, who's ruled Venezuela since 1999, hasn't been seen in a month. He's in Cuba, where he underwent surgery for cancer in December, but he's supposed to be home soon and he's supposed to be sworn in for a fourth presidential term on Thursday.

NPR's Juan Forero has been following the story and he joins us from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Welcome back to the program.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So what do we know and what do we not know about Hugo Chavez's condition right now?

FORERO: Well, Chavez flew to Cuba, a close ally of Venezuela, for surgery, and the last details of any kind came last week when the information minister said Chavez was suffering from a severe respiratory infection. That's what he called it. But there was no elaboration on that point, and over the last month we've heard many things. At one point the vice president said Chavez was up and walking and talking on the phone. Then officials said there were complications, and all of this has left Venezuelans wondering just how healthy or not healthy Chavez is. Some are even pondering what was once unthinkable, that maybe he won't return.

HEADLEE: Well, he traveled to Cuba for treatment in mid-December. Who's been running the country?

FORERO: Before Chavez left for Cuba, he did something that was quite unusual for him. He told Venezuelans that should he not come back, then the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, would be his successor, and he made clear - as clear as the moon, which is how he put it - that Maduro was ready to lead, so Maduro has, in a sense, been in charge. He's on TV frequently. He's visited Chavez in Cuba and talks about it. He looks like a man in charge, but he also said he doesn't want power, that Chavez is still really the man heading the government. In fact, that's what all the top leadership says, that Chavez is in charge. But everyone's wondering, well, if he's in charge, well, where is he?

HEADLEE: Well, as I mentioned, the inauguration is scheduled for Thursday, the 10th. It sounds like Chavez tried to make plans in case he didn't return in time, but I would imagine that if that actually happens, that's going to cause quite a bit of chaos politically in Venezuela.

FORERO: Yeah. Well, the whole country right now is on edge. The opposition says that the constitution is clear. If Chavez doesn't show up, then he can't be president. The government says such criticism is treason and it's basically an effort to destabilize, and so they've recently gone with the argument that the inauguration is really a formality, that because Chavez won reelection in an October election by a wide margin, then the will of the people has been made clear and that he should simply be inaugurated when he's good and ready.

HEADLEE: You know, it was kind of a surprise when Chavez publicly acknowledged he had cancer back in 2011. That kind of flew in the face of the sort of iron man persona he had created for himself. What do Venezuelans think of this whole thing and of their president now?

FORERO: Venezuelans are sharply opposed. Obviously the Chavez supporters are anguished because they're worried about Chavez. Chavez is everything to them and so they're worried, but they also believe what the government has been telling them, which is that Chavez is still here. He's still leading and he will be back and the opposition is increasingly convinced that Chavez won't be back, that because we haven't heard from him in a month, that he's on his death bed or he might even be dead already.

HEADLEE: So what does this mean for us here up north? I mean the United States has not had a very friendly or warm relationship with Venezuela or with Chavez in recent years. Will all this uncertainty at some point cross the border?

FORERO: Well, I think it depends on whether Chavismo - that's the president's movement - survives him. If it does, there are plenty of leaders here who are as anti-American as Chavez is, and then nothing would change. They don't have the charisma, though, and the country's facing a host of serious economic and social problems, like spiraling crime and there are economic problems, so maybe whoever comes after him will focus more of their energies on some of these issues and of course there is also the possibility that it will all come tumbling down if Chavez does leave, if he exits the scene.

HEADLEE: Or Chavez could just show up on Thursday and be inaugurated as president.

FORERO: That's possible. In the past, over the last year and a half of Chavez dealing with this cancer, we hadn't gotten much details about his condition, and then all of a sudden he shows up in Venezuela unannounced in the middle of the night, surprising everybody. That's his style.

HEADLEE: NPR's Juan Forero joined us from Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks so much.

FORERO: Thank you.

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