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Chavez's health soap opera transfixes local Venezuelans

JOSÉ PATIÑO GIRONA Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:59 AM

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TAMPA -

Uncertainty is becoming a way of life for Venezuelans these days.

For weeks, resident and expatriate Venezuelans have been waiting to find out the latest news on President Hugo Chavez, who is gravely ill. Chavez was supposed to be inaugurated Thursday after winning re-election, but the ceremony was postponed because Chavez is still too ill after undergoing his fourth surgery for cancer.

The question of whether Chavez will survive his illness and who might succeed him has transfixed that country and Venezuleans around the world. The news this week that the National Assembly granted Chavez an unlimited medical leave has frustrated many of his critics, both at home and abroad.

"That violates the constitution," said Victor Silva, a Caracas, Venezuela, native who lives in St. Petersburg and is president of the Venezuelan Suncoast Association. "The government doesn't think much about laws and law and order."

"There will be problems and questions whether the existing government is constitutional or not and whether what the government does is legal or not," Silva said. "There will be challenges and unrest."

The soap opera has dominated conversation for weeks among the local Venezuelan population. More than 5,000 people of Venezuelan descent live in the Tampa Bay area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 estimates.

Rumors and conspiracy theories abound about Chavez's health status, but Silva doesn't think Chavez is faking an ailment. The leader's health issues are so serious he probably won't come back, said Silva, 62, a retired pathologist.

"He's had this surgery and hasn't recovered from it," he said. "It would be unusual and unexpected for him to recover from it. He's keeping everyone in suspense."

Inmaculada Frederick and her husband, Al, aren't so sure Chavez is near death.

In 2000, two years after Chavez was first elected, the couple left the country with their three children for Tampa, where her sister lived.

They said they witnessed the growth and power of the government, its attacks on private property rights and harsh rhetoric about foreigners, especially Americans. That was particularly worrying to the pair because he was born and raised in the United States, and they agreed to leave.

Both distrust Chavez and his Venezuelan government and aren't convinced that Chavez is on his deathbed in Cuba.

News about his health could be a ploy to gain sympathy from his country's ardent supporters or to help keep his critics at bay, they said. He's taking his cues from Cuba and the Castros, experts at using manipulation to retain power, they said.

"They do it to keep people on their toes," Al Frederick said. "As long as he's sick or acts sick and all this sort of stuff, you aren't going to fight him."

Even if Chavez dies, Al Frederick, managing partner of Frederick Communications and Consulting, isn't convinced much would change in Venezuela. "There are no institutions," he said. "It's just him. There is no Raul Castro. There is no one to pick up after this guy is gone. The people in power aren't going to let go."

Even if Chavez doesn't return and the government changes, the Fredericks won't be speeding back. They love Venezuela but would want to see years of a stable and consistent democracy before returning, they said.

"Our lives are established here," said Inmaculada Frederick, 51.


Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. jpatino@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7659 Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

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