Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela ponders Chavez's medical absence

Hilberto Caravalo in Caracas, Venezuela
Image caption Hilberto Caravalo said he was relieved to know what was happening to the president

After weeks of speculation about the health of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans are now adjusting to the reality that their head of state has been treated for cancer in Cuba and may not return to the country for some time, says the BBC's Sarah Grainger in Caracas.

President Chavez appeared frail during a recorded message to the nation broadcast on state television on Thursday evening.

He admitted he had undergone an operation in Cuba to remove cancerous cells.

It was the first time Venezuelans had seen him speak in three weeks since he had fallen ill while on an official visit to Havana.

For some people on the streets of the capital, Caracas, Mr Chavez's announcement came as a relief.

"There's been a lot of speculation so I'm happy that now we know what's happening," said Hilberto Caravalo.

But Italo Calderon said the president's place was back home.

"The president should be treated in Venezuela because we need him back here," he said.

Image caption Italo Calderon said Mr Chavez should return to Venezuela for his medical treatment

Throughout his absence his ministers have insisted that he is capable of running the country from Cuba, and has been in constant contact with his inner circle.

In a live broadcast from the presidential palace which immediately followed the president's message, Vice-President Elias Jaua emphasised national loyalty.

"Unity is what is required right now," he said.

"To all the revolutionary forces of the country, allied parties, social movements, we call you to unity, maximum discipline, to co-ordinate the actions necessary to move forward with our revolutionary politics," he said.

Political uncertainty

But the president's announcement has strengthened calls for him to step aside temporarily and allow his vice-president to take over executive powers.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMr Chavez ended the speech with the revolutionary slogan: "Forever onward toward victory!"

"The country's problems… lack of electricity, the prisons, medical strikes, continue to require attention whether or not the president is here," opposition lawmaker Eduardo Gomez Sigala told the BBC.

In the longer term, the announcement has implications for the president's ambitions to run for another six-year term of office in 2012.

"It raises the possibility that next year's elections should be brought forward because we can't live with this vacuum for a prolonged period," said Manuel Felipe Sierra, a political analyst based in Caracas.

And beyond his own personal ambitions, President Chavez's absence has highlighted the fact that there seems to be no apparent heir to his position within his Socialist Party.

"Chavez isn't a president, he's a leader," Sierra said.

"It's all about his personality and when a leader is not there, there is an important gap."

It now looks unlikely that President Chavez will return to Venezuela to take part in bicentennial celebrations scheduled for next Tuesday.

But as he has been absent from the country for almost a month, Venezuelans are already getting used to living without him.

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