Speculation About Hugo Chavez's Health Increases

PHOTO: A man wearing a handcrafted mask depicting the face of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez attends an event commemorating the violent street protests of 1989 known as the Caracazo, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.

Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo

Rumors about Hugo Chavez's poor health continued to circulate online this week, with one diplomat even suggesting that the socialist leader has been dead for a few days already.

Guillermo Cochez is the former ambassador of Panama to the Organization of American States. On Wednesday, he told a Colombian news network that Chavez has been brain dead since December 30th, and that late last week, he was disconnected from machines that were "keeping him alive."

"News of his death has not been issued due to internal [power] struggles in Venezuela and pressure from the Cuban government," Cochez claimed. He said that he was getting information from a source within the Venezuelan government, which he could not name.

On Thursday evening Spanish newspaper ABC made a different claim. The paper said that Chavez was still alive, but that doctors have lost all hope that he can be cured from his serious form of cancer. According to ABC, Chavez was secretely transferred last week to the Caribbean island of La Orchila. The remote island is only inhabited by a few Venezuelan sailors who run a naval base there. ABC said that Chavez was taken to La Orchila so that he can spend the last days of his life peacefully with family.

It's hard to tell if these stories are true. But it is easy to see how such speculation comes about. Ever since Chavez was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, the Venezuelan government has been extremely opaque about his health. To this day, for example, nobody asides from Chavez's most trusted aides knows exactly what type of cancer afflicts the socialist leader.

In fact, since Chavez headed to Cuba on December 10th for his fourth cancer operation in a year and a half, the only medical news that the government has provided to the Venezuelan people is that he has contracted a respiratory infection after surgery and the he temporarily lost his voice, as he must breath through a tracheal tube.

The Venezuelan government says that Chavez has been in Venezuela since February 18, recovering in a military hospital. But no images of the socialist leader's return to Venezuela have been released.

The rest of the information on Chavez's health is limited to vague statements issued every week or so, which include assurances like "he's fighting for his life," "he is going through a risky stage of treatment," or "he is stable."

On Thursday Vice President Nicolas Maduro spoke about Chavez's health again, as he launched a new public housing project in Caracas.

"Do you know why our commander is sick," Maduro said during the nationally televised event. "It's because he gave all his life for those who had nothing….He forgot to take care of himself so that he could give people their country back."

Maduro did not provide any medical details on Chavez. But he is becoming ever more present in nationally televised events like the launching of social projects, patriotic parades, and events commemorating historical dates.

Political analaysts in Venezuela say that this is a sign that the vice president is already preparing for post-Chavez elections, in which he'd have to run against an opposition candidate.

"For weeks, Maduro has been on a presidential sort of schedule," political analyst Fausto Maso told Venezuelan news site Noticias 24 on Thursday. "He is getting people to know him because he is far less known that Chavez."

Rafael Marquina, a Florida based doctor who claims to have inside information on Chavez's health, believes that the socialist leader is close to his end.

"Information is very hard to access right now," Marquina tweeted on Thursday. "In these difficult hours I offer my human solidarity [with Chavez] and out of respect I will wait for official information," the doctor added in the early hours of Friday.

Venezuel's constitution says that if Chavez dies, or has to retire due to health problems, elections must be called for within 30 days.

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