Venezuelans ponder life without Chavez

JACK CHANG - Associated Press
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People walk past a mural of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday July 6, 2011. Venezuelans had the unusual experience of seeing very little of Chavez publicly in the past month. After arriving in Cuba on June 8 there were no broadcasts of "Hello President" or the usual hours-long televised speeches by the famously loquacious leader. Despite the president's return from Cuba on Monday, his health and political future remain very much in doubt as he recovers from a June 20 surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Since Hugo Chavez became Venezuela's president more than 12 years ago, he's been a constant presence in the lives of Rosiri de Blanco and her family.

The 41-year-old mother of four has loyally watched Chavez's weekly TV program "Hello, President" and received subsidized food from the popular markets his government set up. When her hillside slum home was damaged in a mudslide in November, she and her neighbors moved into a public housing complex covered with posters of the charismatic leader.

Then, without warning nearly four weeks ago, the ever-present "comandante" disappeared from public sight.

De Blanco and her fellow evacuees in the Conde housing complex are now discussing what would have been unthinkable just a month ago: the possibility of a Venezuela without Chavez.

"Without Chavez, there's nothing," de Blanco said as she and her neighbors prepared to hold a small Mass for the president's recovery in their building's courtyard. "It's necessary to think about him, but it's necessary to have a positive attitude. We are asking God that Chavez leave all this behind him."

Despite the president's return from Cuba on Monday, his health and political future remain very much in doubt as he recovers from a June 20 surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region.

The 56-year-old leader appeared fatigued during his speech to thousands of supporters Monday afternoon from a balcony of the presidential palace. He himself admitted during the address, "No one should believe that my presence here ... means that we've won the battle. No, we've begun to climb the hill. We've begun to beat the illness that was incubated inside my body."

Talk about Chavez's future is buzzing across this bustling capital city, as newspapers, radio programs and conversations on the street weigh questions of succession and the fate of Chavez's socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution.

De Blanco said she wept the night of June 30 when she watched a thinner, weakened Chavez reveal his medical state for the first time.

For much of the past month, Venezuelans had the unusual experience of seeing very little of Chavez publicly. He arrived in Cuba on June 8 for what his government said was a scheduled visit.

In the following weeks, there were no broadcasts of "Hello President" or the usual hourslong televised speeches by the famously loquacious leader. Until his June 30 revelation, Venezuelans received scant communication from the president, such as a June 12 phone interview with state television and short videos of him convalescing in a track suit.

Chavez stunned the nation with his announcement of the cancer. He didn't say what type of the disease he was fighting or reveal his prognosis for the future.

With tongue in cheek, Venezuelan comedian Andres Schmucke wrote in the newspaper El Universal that he found himself starting to miss Chavez, despite all the problems his government had left unsolved.

"It's been 13 years seeing you every day, hearing you every day, reading news about you every day," Schmucke wrote. "I miss your televised speeches. I miss 'Hello, President.'"

Chavez supporters in Caracas have tried to keep the president in the spotlight by holding daily rallies wishing him a quick recovery. Over the weekend, hundreds of children and their parents marched through the center of town waving signs printed with slogans such as "We'll have Chavez for a while" and "You are my inspiration." They finished in a park and wrote notes to their president on a wall topped with the words "A Rainbow of Love for Chavez."

Government news media have joined in by running ads blaring an administration slogan: "Onward, Commander."

Computer programmer Carlos Rivas, 38, said he's enjoyed the break from his ever-present leader.

"I feel more peaceful without Chavez talking everyday," Rivas said. "He's mortal like anyone else. A Venezuela without Chavez is possible."

Rivas and his wife were leaving a park in of one of Caracas' affluent neighborhoods, where thousands of people were enjoying their four-day weekend celebrating the country's bicentennial. Not far away was a manicured square that has long been a gathering spot for Chavez opponents.

His wife Rosa Lopez, a 32-year-old electrical engineer, said she believed the country was ready for a change. Many young professionals like herself have left Venezuela, she said, due to low salaries and annual inflation rates that have hovered around 30 percent over the past three years.

"It's healthy for the country to have another leader," Lopez said. "People are happy. They aren't worried about Chavez or his health."

For de Blanco and her fellow evacuees, the uncertain fate of Chavez's government has sparked worries that they could lose benefits such as government-subsidized food and shelter.

Chavez's administration has housed storm refugees all over the capital city, some in an unfinished downtown shopping mall expropriated by the government.

Andres Avelino, who also was forced from his home during last year's torrential rains, credited the Chavez administration with providing his government pension.

"These are benefits that we have never had before," said the 60-year-old retired construction worker. Many in his working-class neighborhood, San Agustin, wore the bright red shirts that have become the norm for Chavez supporters. Avelino's shirt touted Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, while another man's shirt read: "Chavez is the Winner."

Avelino said he believes deeply in Chavez and prefers not to imagine a future without him. Without Chavez, he said, "it would get ugly in Venezuela."