Ailing Chavez Faces Tough Re-Election Bid Venezuela's longtime leader says he's in a "battle for life" as he undergoes chemotherapy. He faces political challenges as well, including an energized opposition ahead of next year's presidential election.
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Ailing Chavez Faces Tough Re-Election Bid

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Ailing Chavez Faces Tough Re-Election Bid

Ailing Chavez Faces Tough Re-Election Bid

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez had surgery last month in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor. Now he says he may have to undergo chemotherapy. Chavez returned home to reassert his authority, but now he faces an energized opposition and an election next year. Chavez hasn't said much in the way of details about his illness, so it's not clear whether he'll have the stamina to face those challenges in the coming months. Here's NPR's Juan Forero.

JUAN FORERO: Hugo Chavez has always appeared energetic and buoyant a strong leader, always in charge and always able to vanquish his opponents. So after his operation in Cuba, the government displayed its muscle at an Independence Day parade fighter aircraft, tanks and soldiers shouting: socialist fatherland or death.

Unidentified Man: (yelling in Spanish)

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

FORERO: Still, Chavez was too weak to attend. He spoke to the crowd via a live feed from the presidential palace.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: And now he's back in Cuba, where he says he is in, quote, "a battle for life."

These days, Chavez looks thinner and paler, though the government has yet to say what kind of cancer he has. Jose Albornoz, once a close ally of the president, said Chavez might have to operate more slowly.

Mr. JOSE ALBORNOZ (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: The president is in a delicate state of health, Albornoz says, and that means he may not have the capacity to dedicate 24 hours a day to politics, as he had in the past.

Henrique Capriles, the leading opposition candidate ahead of next years presidential election, hopes to capitalize on the situation.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking)

FORERO: On a recent day, he worked a crowd of potential voters in the poor Las Mercedes district just south of Caracas. Capriles seems to have it all hes young, and telegenic, and is governor of Miranda, a rich, centrally located state that provides him with a platform.

Mr. HENRIQUE CAPRILES (Leading Opposition Candidate): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: The problems in Venezuela, Capriles says, are the product of an absolutely inefficient government. A government, he says, has wasted billions from a historic oil boom. There is rampant crime, energy shortages and lost jobs. Increasingly, polls show Venezuelans deeply concerned about these problems and that may be hurting Chavez.

In one recent national poll, Capriles and Chavez were in a statistical tie when prospective voters were asked which candidate they preferred.

Mr. ALFREDO ASCANIO (Capriles Supporter): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Health care, security, work, schools thats what we need, says Alfredo Ascanio, among those in Las Mercedes who say they plan to vote for Capriles. Ascanio says Chavezs government isnt delivering on any of those. But there are those who say you cant count Chavez out like Carlos Romero, a political analyst.

Mr. CARLOS ROMERO (Political Analyst): There is a strong government in Venezuela. The strong government has been in power for more than 11 years. There is a strong political party and there is a strong mass of support for the regime.

FORERO: Romero says some opposition politicians, including Capriles, present themselves as a sort of new Chavez. They rely on populism to win support the same kind of populism that Chavez has used effectively for a dozen years.

FORERO: And on his recent swing through Las Mercedes, Capriles handed out vouchers people could use to renovate their homes.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in Spanish)

FORERO: This clearly won him points from Ana Teresa de Pacheco, who got a voucher and can now pay for a new roof on her house.

Ms. ANA TERESA DE PACHECO: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: If I get help, she says, you have to be thankful.

But when asked about Hugo Chavez, de Pacheco says she has supported him, too, and would consider doing so in the future if Chavezs government provides her with help.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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