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Chavez summit no-show raises new health fears

08 december 2012, 12:25
0
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. ©AFP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. ©AFP
The rumor mill over the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is again spinning wildly as cancer-related treatment forces the leftist anti-US firebrand to skip another international summit, AFP reports.

Chavez, 58, has repeatedly claimed to have beaten an unspecified cancer in his pelvic region that was diagnosed in 2011 and shrugged off his illness to see off a unified opposition and secure another six-year term on October 7.

Weeks after his hard-fought re-election, Chavez said that "God willing" he would attend Friday's Mercosur summit and preside over Venezuela's hotly-anticipated debut outing as part of the group, which it joined in July.

But on Thursday, hosts Brazil announced that the bombastic and once-omnipresent Venezuelan leader would have to forego the gathering as he is still in Cuba receiving treatment to help his recovery.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who was also promoted to vice president after the election, will take Chavez's place alongside the leaders of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the meeting of the South American trading bloc.

Chavez had a cancerous tumor removed from near his pelvic region last year, but the government never disclosed the type or severity of the cancer, and in July of this year he claimed to be cancer-free.

Chavez, who has been in power since 1999 and gained global prominence as an anti-American firebrand, appeared weak and subdued during the presidential campaign, but still managed to win another term that extends to 2018.

He was last seen in public November 15, and two weeks later he went to Cuba for treatment, having said prior to his trip that he was cured.

The serial tweeter hasn't fed his 3.7 million Twitter followers anything since November 1.

Social media and the press are sizzling with speculation over his condition.

Over the last year and a half, Chavez has missed practically every regional meeting he was to have attended, such as the Summit of the Americas, in Colombia, or last month's Ibero-American summit in Cadiz, Spain.

The government is keeping mum, showing how secretive it is about the health of the endlessly loquacious and populist leader who dominates the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

No date has been given for Chavez's return from Cuba and his absence is beginning to overshadow key regional elections scheduled for December 16.

Unlike other trips to Cuba, this time Chavez did not make farewell remarks or hold a carefully choreographed photograph opportunity.

There was just a brief statement in the official Cuban newspaper Granma when he arrived, and statements from ministers saying Chavez was fine and undergoing "therapies to strengthen his health more and more."

Granma specified it was hyperbaric oxygenation. This new treatment comes six months after several cycles of radiation therapy to deal with a reappearance of Chavez's cancer.

The American Cancer Society says there is no evidence that this oxygen treatment -- in which a patient gets inside a pressurized chamber and breathes pure oxygen for an hour -- works against cancer.

But the society says it can serve as treatment for ailments stemming from radiation treatment.

Among other things, it can help heal injuries or burns caused by radiation therapy, said Pantaleon Astiazaran, an expert in hyperbaric medicine.

And it usually requires repeated sessions over a course of days, which might help explain Chavez's prolonged absence, Astiazaran said.

"Chavez's health is a mystery. There is no way of knowing exactly what his presence or absence in recent days is due to," said political scientist Angel Alvarez.

Maduro said last week that Chavez was doing well and closely following events in Venezuela from Cuba.

Before his cancer diagnosis, Chavez was usually all over Venezuelan TV. Now, every time he goes to Cuba for treatment or vanishes from public view for a few days, chatter over his health spreads like wildfire on social media, in the streets and in the media.

On Wednesday evening, when former communications minister Andres Izarre tweeted that people should watch state run VTV, many thought it was because Chavez himself was going to be on it.

Some saw the promotion of Maduro, who is well-liked by Chavez's communist allies in Cuba, as a sign he has been chosen as heir apparent.

But Alvarez cautioned not to read too much into Maduro filling the president's shoes at Mercosur, saying such a move was unsurprising given his record as foreign minister and as Venezuela's best international spokesman.

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