Cancer may cut fourth Chavez re-election term short

Poor health may end the often turbulent political career of the socialist Venezuelan president, who in 14 years has introduced some major changes and forged new, unlikely international alliances.

Fireworks erupted in downtown Caracas as supporters of socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrated news of a further six years in power.

But his new term, his fourth, will likely be plagued by poor health. The 57-year-old said earlier this year that he had recovered from the cancer first diagnosed in 2011. But many people doubt this, and it has not been independently confirmed.

However, the election results ended speculation that his rival, Henrique Capriles Radonski, may have led by more than a million votes.

They show Mr Chavez won 54.4% of the vote to Mr Capriles' 44.9%.

Estimates of voter participation indicate just how important this election was, with around 81% of almost 19 million registered voters going to the polls this week.

Claims of election fraud are expected, but the voting system in Venezuela is contemporary enough that counterfeiting would be difficult to hide.

Mr Capriles congratulated President Chavez, saying he is convinced Venezuela can be better and that it will be better, and encouraging his followers not to feel defeated.

The 40-year-old lawyer from Miranda state had excited the disparate Venezuelan opposition. He led a nationwide campaign to reinvigorate his followers, often going door-to-door in some areas to drum up support.

A strong campaign selling point was the frequent power outages, the food shortages and a skyrocketing murder rate. 

Although Mr Chavez's his support base remains strong, many Venezuelans blame his social direction for the dysfunction. He has maintained power for nearly 14 years, surviving a rough economic patch and an attempted coup in 2002.

He has managed the economy on a somewhat ad-hoc basis, leading to gross inefficiencies. Roads and bridges are literally falling apart and prisons are apparently grossly overcrowded and full of armed gangs.

The president came to power promising to spread the wealth and address the country’s poor. Riding a wave of popular support, he overturned the elite and organised an inner circle of trusted officials.

But the elite did not take kindly to Chavez’s reforms. A coup attempt in 2002 orchestrated by the Petroleos de Venezuela Oil Company offered him the chance to take control in unprecedented ways and crippled the national oil company.

However, his reign has expanded Venezuela’s international influence significantly, especially in Central America. Nicaragua and Ecuador have benefited from Venezuelan oil exports, while Argentina trades willingly and their relationship has improved.

It is Mr Chavez’s resistance to a perceived United States global domination which truly colours his international reputation.

Suspicious of US involvement in the coup attempt, he repositioned Venezuela away from America, cobbling together unusual relationships with other anti-US countries.

This has been the toughest election for leftist Mr Chavez in his long tenure. A strong support base has confirmed a fourth term but things are clearly changing for Venezuela.

Rumours of his illness subsided in the lead-up to the October elections but there are no reliable sources to confirm his cancer is in remission, and the ongoing health concerns make it unlikely he will complete this new term.

A 2009 revision of the country’s constitution means the president of the National Assembly will become his immediate successor. Snap elections would be called within 30 days.

For the first time in more than a decade the opposition is united behind a figurehead like Mr Capriles so if Mr Chavez dies during this next term his rival may have a second chance to gain power.

The president's presence popped up curiously in New Zealand in September 2010, when NBR revealed his interest in the transfer of $US50 million from a Bolivian bank shares sale through a firm of Hamilton accountants – a transaction which ended in the High Court.

Bolivian bank shareholders identified a Venezuelan state-owned bank as a potential buyer for their shares. A Hamilton accountant was asked by his Panamanian lawyer buddy to hold the cash involved in trust with Westpac until the deal was finalised.

New Zealand was chosen because President Chavez was not very fond of the US and wanted the funds to go through an independent bank.

The story did not end there.

Read the full story in The banker, lawyer, president, bean counter and their loot:

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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