WASHINGTON, July 29 (UPI) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez– battling cancer, succession speculation and tough economic times — is proving himself anything but down and out.
Despite earlier surgery to remove a tumor from his pelvic area and scheduled chemotherapy treatment in Cuba, Chavez sounded his old self this week as he and the country marked his 57th birthday.
“I’m like the phoenix, I’ve returned to life,” he said in a telephone call to state-run television.
“I’m halfway through my life, another 57 years are coming!” he added later and then danced a brief jig on a balcony at the presidential palace in Caracas for supporters below.
“Next year, we will win the presidential elections once again! Strength, unity!”
Chavez was first elected in 1999 and immediately began a series of populist reforms to transform the country into a socialist state. Foreign-owned oil interests have been nationalized, land-reform has been introduced and worker councils and cooperatives established.
Flamboyant in personality and speech, he — like his hero and friend, Fidel Castro — is fond of balconies, long speeches and railing against the Great Imperialist, the United States.
It was no surprise that when he vanished from public view early last month without explanation, anxiety ran through the ranks of supporters. When the public was told he was in Cuba and had had a cancerous growth removed from his pelvis, prayer vigils were convened and supporters as well as foes speculated on the future.
Could Chavez continue to govern? If not, who would replace him? Close aides and Cabinet ministers — Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Minister of Energy Rafael Ramirez — were mentioned amid rumors of a possible power struggle. So, too, was Chavez’s older brother, Adan, a provincial governor.
“Hey, Adan, you look well-shaven, dressed up,” Hugo Chavez joked in a television link up with his brother, news reports said. “I can see you’re preparing for the succession.”
Lest anyone forget who is in charge, Hugo Chavez since his return has announced the nomination of a minister of prisons, approval of $51 million in funding for a state government, funding for an organization that promotes socialism and the launch of a trash collection project.
He’s even found time to criticize a referee’s call in a Venezuela-Paraguay soccer match and throw a jibe at Washington.
“The empire is bankrupt and could drag half the world down with it,” he reportedly said of the U.S. debt crisis during a Cabinet meeting. “Fix your own problems first, decadent empire.”
Many the announcements have appeared on Chavezcandanga, the president’s Twitter account. It’s said up to 50 messages to supporters appear every week — not the greatest substitute for his penchant for pressing the flesh at public events but a clever way to show he is active.
And active he must remain with elections looming. Crime is a major concern in Venezuela. So is inflation — more than 30 percent — and lack of sufficient public housing. All are electoral Achilles’ heels for Chavez, whose support mainly comes from the working class and urban poor.
Chavez this week, in an announcement that could have been designed to promote the hope of future economic progress for the country, said the state owned oil company, PDVSA, was increasing oil production by 30,000 barrels a day in the Orinoco region of the country as a special birthday gift to him.
Oil is the backbone of the Venezuelan economy and key to solving its socio-economic problems.