Published: January 21, 2012
Times Topic: Venezuela
And, in one stroke, he found a way to irk both Washington and his political opponents at home, appointing a new defense minister who has been accused by the United States of supporting the drug trafficking activities of a Colombian rebel group classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
Throughout the summer and fall, Mr. Chávez appeared uncharacteristically frail, when he showed up in public at all. He curtailed a once-busy schedule and stopped conducting his weekly Sunday television program, Aló Presidente, which for years had helped rouse his core supporters and shape the national dialogue.
But now that he says he has beaten cancer, he is asserting himself as the dominant figure in a tough campaign for re-election this year. As if to broadcast his renewed vigor, Mr. Chávez spoke for more than nine hours in his annual address to the National Assembly on Jan. 13, never sitting down and pausing only to take questions from legislators.
Commentators said that the speech, the equivalent of a State of the Union address, was his longest ever (last year’s version was a mere seven and three-quarters hours) and that Mr. Chávez was intent on showing voters and politicians in his own party and the opposition that his powers were not diminished.
He said as much himself, concluding his speech by reading a passage from Nietzsche on the importance of will in overcoming obstacles. He ended with his own words: “Here I am. I have returned.”
It was “vintage Chávez in campaign mode,” said Michael E. Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan policy group focused on the Western Hemisphere. “He’s basically saying, ‘I’m back, I’m in full control, this is the old Chávez.’ ”
Mr. Chávez has governed Venezuela for 13 years. He often picks fights with the United States, portraying it as an imperial bully and using his defiance to rally supporters at home and abroad. And he has pushed an increasingly aggressive agenda to establish his own brand of socialism in Venezuela, which includes the nationalization of businesses large and small, and programs aimed at fighting poverty.
But he was forced to check his stride. In June, he underwent surgery for his cancer and then began chemotherapy, shuttling back and forth to Cuba, where he received much of his treatment. His absence left a void, animating the opposition, revealing divisions within his own party and raising the question of whether he would still be the force he once was, if he recovered at all.
“The president was absent from the debate,” said Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela. “It created room to think about a political future without Chávez, or with a Chávez diminished in his ability to bring together and control his supporters.”
At the same time, popular discontent with his government has grown over widespread electrical failures and rampant violent crime. Venezuela’s regional influence has also waned, following a period when its economy struggled and neighboring Brazil exerted itself as the continent’s powerhouse.
Mr. Chávez has never disclosed what form of cancer he had and speculation rages that he is much sicker than he has let on, raising doubts about his ability to campaign for re-election or govern for another term.
But in recent weeks Mr. Chávez has sharpened his tone and filled out his schedule. He rolled out new social programs in December that are sure to shore up support among the poorest Venezuelans, including a program that gives poor households about $100 a month for each child.
He held a meeting of heads of state from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean last month. And he revived his old rivalries, suggesting that the United States may have found a way to induce cancer in people it considered enemies, pointing to several heads of state in the region who, like himself, had received a diagnosis of cancer.
With the new year, he began firing on all cylinders. He hosted Mr. Ahmadinejad. He vowed to pull out of the World Bank arbitration process. And he appointed the new defense minister, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, accused by the Treasury Department in 2008 of working closely with Colombian rebels to help them transport drugs through Venezuela.
Mr. Chávez has also defended President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in the face of accusations that he has brutally repressed an uprising there; and for good measure, Mr. Chávez lamented the downfall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, all in the name of anti-imperialism.
On Jan. 8, Mr. Chávez brought Aló Presidente back on the air. Then came his marathon speech, expansive in tone as well as length.
At one point in the address, an assembly member, María Corina Machado, who is part of a large field seeking to become the opposition candidate in the October election, took Mr. Chávez to task over shortages of basic goods like milk and the nationalization of private businesses, which she called robbery. But Mr. Chávez dismissed Ms. Machado’s criticism, and, it seemed, the entire opposition. “An eagle,” he said, “doesn’t hunt a fly.”
In an interview on Friday, Ms. Machado said that Mr. Chávez was trying to come back from both a year marked by his cancer, as well as a strong showing by the opposition in legislative elections in 2010. “The perception that he was unbeatable was demolished,” Ms. Machado said.
While Mr. Chávez may be seeking to recapture his momentum after a difficult year, he is also doing what politicians often do in election years: moving to shore up the extreme wing of his party, which includes some of his most enthusiastic supporters.
“He’s got to convince the base that he’s the Hugo Chávez he always was,” said David J. Myers, a professor of political science at Penn State. “And that’s what you’re seeing right now.”