VENEZUELA-CHAVEZ:Chavez breaks silence, says governing Venezuela
By Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez broke a week-long silence on Monday to deny he had left Venezuela rudderless during cancer treatment in Cuba and to promise a resounding re-election win in October.
"I'm governing - fulfilling my duties as head of state - but in this unique situation which I will be out of in the next few days," Chavez told state TV in a brief phone call, his voice sounding firm and energetic.
"Soon I will be back there."
Chavez's normally ubiquitous media presence had slowed to a trickle of Tweets in recent days. He had not made any live contact with state media in the past week since a public appearance last Monday before leaving for Cuba to receive treatment.
His unusual silence had fanned opposition criticism he was no longer properly running the OPEC nation and spurred unprecedented talk of a successor to the former soldier, who during 13 years in power has avoided cultivating a protege who could replace him.
"Venezuela today is being governed via a telephone, via Twitter," the opposition coalition's presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, told local TV soon after Chavez's comments.
In his half-hour telephone call, Chavez insisted he was still in charge of the government and would be back home soon to start gearing up his re-election campaign from July.
"The opposition are never going to win any elections in Venezuela, ever again, we are going to give them a resounding knockout," he said in comments that sparked a stream of jubilant Tweets from supporters.
Chavez's health is treated as a state secret - like that of his mentor and friend, Fidel Castro of Cuba.
The Venezuelan has had three operations since last June, including one that removed a baseball-sized tumor. But officials have refused to divulge details about his cancer.
He is supposed to have completed the last of five radiotherapy sessions in Cuba in recent days, but his uncharacteristic silence has brought speculation his condition is getting worse, possibly fatal.
One source close to the government said over the weekend that Chavez's health has deteriorated considerably with the radiotherapy. He has been in intense pain and is unable to walk, requiring him to use a wheelchair, the source told Reuters.
"There is great anxiety over what is coming," the source said.
TRANSITION TALK GROWS
The recent creation of a Council of State, charged with advising the president on policy issues, has been interpreted by analysts and some opposition activists as a transition agency that could ease the way toward a post-Chavez Venezuela.
Party leaders deny this, insisting he is their only candidate and will sweep Capriles in the October 7 vote.
"It is not a transition (committee) and there will be no transition," said Vice President Elias Jaua at the weekend in a ceremony filled with Chavez supporters clad in signature red shirts chanting party slogans.
"There will be elections, re-election and a new term for Hugo Chavez."
Allies seen as potential replacements for him if he cannot run include Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
Chavez's two daughters, who have no political experience but frequently appear with him in public, are seen as potential stand-ins who could command respect from supporters and allies.
"There is no way to know the likelihood of any given scenario without serious information about Chavez's health," said local pollster and analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
"But one thing is clear: Chavez will be the candidate, dead or alive. Even if Chavez is physically absent, the campaign will be full of his symbols, photos, messages and missions."
Chavez has spent most of the last six weeks in Havana, and has only been seen once live in public since mid-April.
He ended a short address a week ago choking on his words, with tears in his eyes, in sharp contrast to his triumphant speech to Congress in January that stretched for nine hours.
His recent Twitter comments have been limited to greetings to allies and vows of state funding for arcane projects ranging from fixing broken elevators to boosting sugar cane production.
Financial markets have reacted positively to speculation over Chavez's illness, with the country's bonds rallying broadly on the possibility of a more market-friendly government.
Chavez's oil-financed social welfare crusade has made him immensely popular among the country's poor, who have handed him repeated ballot box victories since he first won office in 1998.
Opposition leaders, who have avoided directly commenting on his illness, describe him as a doctrinaire autocrat whose steady expansion of the state has weakened the economy and left Venezuelans dependent on state handouts.
Capriles, a center-left state governor who admires Brazil's "modern left" political model, has been struggling to close a two-digit gap behind Chavez in most opinion polls.
He is on a nationwide "house-to-house" tour to try and project himself as a national leader and hear Venezuelans' problems. But he is struggling to win headline space from Chavez.
"Today, we are five months away from electing a stagnant present or a progressive future," he added on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Eyanir Chinea, Mario Naranjo and Diego Ore; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)