CARACAS, Venezuela — Belkis Martinez isn't taking any chances. Minutes after hearing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was leaving for Cuba for another round of medical treatment, the 42-year-old hairstylist who lives in Antímano, a working-class neighborhood of Caracas, was in line at her supermarket buying canned goods and crackers.
"I just can't help but think that they aren't telling us the real story about El Comandante," said Martinez, referring to the president. "If something would happen to him, anything could happen. His enemies could try to take power, or maybe people within in his own party would try. I just want to be prepared for the worst, especially if rioting breaks out or they declare martial law."
The Venezuelan president's return to Havana for additional medical care comes as he seeks to deepen the country's socialist revolution after winning a new six-year term on Oct. 7. Chávez, who has been battling cancer since June 2011, won 55 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski. He has repeatedly said the vote was a mandate for him to expand socialism in the country, and opponents fear that he may seek to restrict personal freedoms and place fresh limits on private property. But without Chávez leading the revolution, few believe that his successors will have any luck fulfilling his agenda.
Speculation about Chávez's health has been growing since he won reelection and then dramatically cut back his public appearances. According to figures compiled by the Caracas-based El Universal newspaper, Chávez amassed 2,850 minutes' worth of public appearances in July, including campaign and government activities, interviews, news conferences, and televised telephone calls. In August and September, the totals were 3,730 minutes and 2,466 minutes, respectively, but in October, the president's appearances slumped to 879 minutes. In November to date, they have fallen to a mere 495 minutes. For Venezuelans accustomed to hearing Chávez's characteristically long-winded speeches several times a week, his absence is tangible.
Chávez's health remains shrouded in mystery -- he has repeatedly refused to divulge details about his illness -- but he has admitted to undergoing three pelvic surgeries, including one to extract a tumor. In September, the president publicly broke down and implored God to allow him to live longer, fueling already rampant speculation that his condition is terminal. Chávez's struggle has spawned at least one website dedicated to tracking changes in his health. Still, Chávez's Nov. 28 departure for Cuba surprised many, given its timing.
The trip coincided with a military parade celebrating the 20th anniversary of his second unsuccessful coup against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez -- a parade he had been scheduled to attend. It also occurred less than three weeks before Venezuelans are scheduled to go to the polls for gubernatorial and state elections. Chávez had been expected to campaign for candidates of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), several of whom are facing stiff challengers.
The president has not been seen since he appeared at a carefully choreographed televised meeting with ministers on Nov. 15. At that time, he seemed animated, but his face was palpably swollen. Rumors of his imminent demise and possible political instability helped push the black-market dollar rate to a record high 20 bolívars briefly this week, before it fell back to 15. The official exchange rate is 4.3 bolívars to the dollar. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Chávez left the country under a cloud of secrecy. In the past, his health-related travels have been broadcast live on television. This time, however, he left it to Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, to read a short statement announcing his departure.