CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been out of sight for a week, speaking only through Twitter messages and written statements while undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba.
The lack of any appearances on television has Venezuelans wondering about what his unusual silence might say about his struggle with cancer, and whether Chavez may be coping with a particularly tough phase of radiation therapy.
More than two dozen messages have appeared on Chavez’s Twitter account since he left for Cuba on April 14. He has cheered on supporters with slogans such as “Let’s continue building socialism!” In others, he has praised his military commanders, announced funding for local governments and vowed to survive and win re-election in October.
But he has seldom mentioned his cancer treatment.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello reiterated on Friday that Chavez is expected to return to Venezuela soon.
“God willing, next week he’ll be here again with us once he has finished the treatment,” Cabello said in a televised speech. He insisted that even when Chavez is away in Cuba, “he leads just the same as if he were here in Venezuela.”
“The commander’s presence here isn’t necessary, because just the same he’s the commander of the revolution,” Cabello said.
But even some of Chavez’s supporters have been saying recently that they wonder what’s going on with his health.
“It makes me sad, but my Comandante must not be as well as they say,” said Guillermo Suarez, a street vendor selling sunglasses. “It’s already been many days that we haven’t seen him, heard him.”
Chavez, who has been president since 1999, has long been a constant presence on Venezuelan television, often addressing the nation for several hours most days in addition to his marathon Sunday program “Hello, President.” But recently there have been no episodes of “Hello, President,” and Chavez said he expected his final rounds of radiation therapy, which began last month, to be rough.
Chavez has not discussed details of the radiation treatments, saying they have diminished his strength but have been going well. Last weekend, he decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the sort of high-profile international event where he would previously have taken center stage. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced the decision on Chavez’s behalf, saying he was skipping the summit on the advice of his doctors.
Chavez began radiation treatment in Cuba in late March after undergoing an operation in February that removed a second tumor from his pelvic region. The first was taken out last June. He has kept secret some details of his illness, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors.
Doctors say common side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue and damage to areas exposed to the radiation beams, as well as nausea and diarrhea in cases such as Chavez’s in which the pelvic area is treated.
Chavez also was away in Havana regularly last year while undergoing chemotherapy after the initial surgery.
During previous trips to Cuba, Chavez has periodically appeared on television, either in phone calls or appearances with his aides or daughters. He has given the appearance of continuing to work and keeping abreast of affairs at home.
Before his latest trip to Cuba, Chavez said he planned to stay away longer to allow for his last two rounds of radiation treatment, and obtained approval from lawmakers to leave the country for more than five days as required by the constitution.
In the past week, his Twitter messages have been read aloud by his Cabinet ministers at televised events. At one event Friday, Chavez’s supporters responded with shouts of “Onward, Comandante!”
Without Chavez on the air, state television has instead shown a salsa concert, documentaries and a Mass. Such programs and newscasts are interspersed with a short segment showing a healthy Chavez embracing children in slow motion against a background of folk music.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Dario Vivas dismissed concerns about Chavez keeping a lower profile, saying the president remains fully in charge and is regaining his health.
“The same people who complain that he talks a lot are the ones who get panicked when they don’t hear him,” Vivas said Friday outside an event at the National Assembly.