According to the statement, Chávez requested the assembly's permission to leave the country for more than five days -- as spelled out in the Venezuelan Constitution -- for physical therapy and hyperbaric oxygenation treatment. Such treatment, which consists of breathing pure oxygen under pressurized conditions, is often prescribed for post-surgical patients to speed their recovery. Its use for cancer patients, however, is more controversial, as the pure oxygen can also feed cancerous cells, allowing them to grow more rapidly.
Cabello, a former vice president and one of Chávez's closest collaborators, did not offer a specific date for Chávez's expected return. Instead, he assured the public that the president would be back in time for his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 10. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas subsequently said that Chávez started treatment upon arrival in Cuba and that the procedures were cancer-related. He further explained that the president's condition had been exacerbated by campaigning. "He didn't follow the advice of those who told him not to campaign,'' said Villegas. "He did, and like the extraordinary political leader that he is, he made an effort."
Since his initial treatment, Chávez has made at least 16 health-related trips to Cuba. He is also widely suspected of having made several undisclosed stops for medical care. Rejecting advice from friends such as former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chávez has refused to seek treatment outside Cuba, fearing that his medical condition could be leaked to the media if he did.
Just six months ago, in the heat of the presidential campaign, Chávez claimed that he was cancer-free, after at least three operations as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Still, Chávez often looked heavily made up and tired with noticeable facial swelling during the campaign. That he didn't look worse was attributed to his rumored use of steroids to maintain his strength and physical appearance.
But not everyone is convinced that Chávez is on his deathbed. "I just think his departure to Cuba is yet another ruse to gain votes for the PSUV and their candidates in the upcoming elections,'' said Javier Rojas, a chemical engineer in Caracas. "He has relapses every time he needs support or votes from the masses, who don't question him or his motives. I don't think he is sick at all."
Under the Venezuelan Constitution, Vice President Nicolás Maduro would assume power if Chávez were unable to serve. But Maduro, who was only named vice president last month, is regarded by many as an uninspiring leader, lacking Chávez´s political skills. And cracks in Chávez´s ruling PSUV have already appeared as rumors about his condition have spread.
At the state level, Chávez's decision to seek treatment in Cuba could have real political consequences, whether or not he recovers. In several states, the president's backers have been unable to unite around a single gubernatorial candidate, leading Cabello to castigate party officials. Venezuela's opposition currently holds seven of the country's 23 statehouses. And after the presidential vote, in which the opposition did remarkably well, many of these races are seen as wide open.
At his inauguration in January, Chávez is expected to spell out initiatives for deepening the revolution through 2019. Among them could be new nationalizations, a possible devaluation, and the abolition of state and regional governments in favor of peoples' communes. "I am afraid of what may happen to Chávez between now and then," said Giovanna Lozada, who owns a boutique in Caracas. "But I think I am more scared as to what the president may say on Jan. 10."