CARACAS -- When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was hustled out of a Cuban hospital on Monday and into a 15-story medical center near downtown Caracas, little changed. Publicly, the ailing leader still hasn’t been heard from or seen in the flesh for almost 70 days, and his administration still claims he’s in charge.
But the transfer, which came unannounced and under the cover of dark, was a political ground shift for an embattled opposition that has been trying to recover from two high-profile losses even as it steels itself to face an eventual Chávez successor.
Over the past two months, as Chávez underwent a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba, the opposition had been gaining traction with its claims that his absence proved he was too ill to run the country.
But his surprise return Monday has undermined those arguments, analysts said.
“The opposition had been increasingly strident in its calls for him to return from Venezuela, as proof that he’s alive, proof that he can govern, and he’s done that now,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “The opposition is going to have to recalibrate its approach.”
Chávez’s homecoming is being trumpeted in the state-run press, and has lifted hopes among his followers. Vice President Nicolás Maduro has described him as being “conscious” and “happy,” but there are reasons to worry.
On Tuesday, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced he was going to use a five-hour layover in Caracas to visit Chávez. But the meeting, apparently, never took place. And aside from a handful of Twitter messages early Monday, there has been no word from the 58-year-old leader.
But that didn’t seem to dampen hopes around the heavily guarded medical center. Ricardo Tria, 48, had spent most of the day in front of the Military Hospital to show El Comandante his support. He said he wasn’t worried about government reports that Chávez was having trouble speaking due to a tracheal tube.
“The fact that he’s back means he’s getting better,” Tria said. “Just wait. You and I will see him standing on his own two feet, speaking to the crowds like he always has.”
Outside the beige medical complex, red-bereted soldiers kept camera crews and the curious from getting beyond the gate. Two nurses who work at the center said there was stepped-up security inside the building. Seven floors have been blocked off, they said, and they were told Chávez was somewhere on the ninth floor.
If the president were to step down or die it would trigger new elections within 30 days, and many believe he returned to midwife the transition. Maduro, a former union organizer and longtime foreign minister, is Chávez’s anointed successor.
“Chávez seems to be, from all signs, in not very good shape. My sense is that the government is going to want to ensure continuity, and to do that I think elections are inevitable,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. The longer the administration delays an election, he said, the greater risk they run leaving supporters “disenchanted with the government, growing impatient with the limbo and uncertainty.”
Delays also give the opposition a chance to regroup, he said.
Venezuela’s opposition has been battered in the polls recently. In October, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles lost the presidential race to Chávez by 11 points. In December, the ruling party swept 20 out of 23 governor’s races. That has led to much griping in opposition ranks and speculation that their tenuous coalition might fall apart.
The alliance of opposition parties, known as the MUD, insists it will rally behind a single candidate if new elections are triggered. An anonymous MUD source told Ultimas Noticias newspaper that a new contender will be named within 48 hours after Chávez resigns or dies. But most agree that few potential candidates have the network and national recognition that Capriles does.
The opposition “is struggling to regain their footing,” Shifter said. “They’ve been thrown off balance by the very surreal aspects of Chávez’s illness and trips to Havana.”
Most analysts give the administration the edge in a Maduro-Capriles showdown.
Chávez has been battling an undisclosed form of cancer since at least June 2011. On Dec. 10, he traveled to Cuba to undergo additional surgery and fell off the radar. Aside from four snapshots released Friday, Chávez has not been seen or heard from.
For many, the president’s return won’t be complete until he’s seen in public again.
Juan Torres, a 37-year-old salesman, said Chávez was like an act of faith.
“Everyone knows he exists,” Torres said. “But no one has seen him.”