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Chavez's Brother Talks of Potential Armed Struggle

One of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's brothers said Sunday that backers of the hospitalized leftist leader should not rule out armed struggle in the future, though they prefer to maintain power at the ballot box.

Hugo Chavez
Miguell Guitierrez | AFP | Getty Images
Hugo Chavez

Adan Chavez's statement came as speculation mounted about the health of the president, who has been convalescing at an undisclosed location in Cuba after reportedly undergoing emergency surgery 16 days ago.

Chavez's older brother said Venezuela's ruling party wants to retain power by defeating foes in elections. But he told government supporters that they should be ready to take up arms if necessary.

"As authentic revolutionaries, we cannot forget other forms of fighting," he said during a prayer meeting for the health of his 56-year-old brother in the leader's home state of Barinas.

Quoting Latin American revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the president's brother added: "It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle."

Adan Chavez is a mild-mannered former university physics professor who has a close relationship with the president while maintaining a low profile. He did not explain why it might be necessary for the president's backers to consider the possibility of guerrilla warfare in the future, and the statement seemed to clash with Hugo Chavez's own assertions.

The president, a former paratroop commander, led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow an earlier government in 1992. But he has repeatedly beaten his adversaries in elections since taking office in 1999 and he has long insisted that he is an authentic democrat who rules out violence as a means of holding onto power.

Despite numerous domestic problems ranging from soaring inflation to widespread crime, Chavez remains Venezuela's most popular politician and he has vowed to win re-election next year.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a spokesman for a coalition of major opposition parties, condemned Adan Chavez's suggestions that government supporters should be prepared to take up arms.

"He's wrong to talk about violence because the Venezuelan people are peaceful," Aveledo said in a statement.

Aveledo predicted Hugo Chavez would be defeated in next year's presidential vote, saying: "He arrived through the ballot and he'll leave through the ballot."

Opposition leaders also accused the president of failing to fully inform Venezuelans about his health, saying the president's condition following surgery in Cuba should not be shrouded in secrecy.

Despite assurances from top government officials and close relatives that Chavez is recuperating, the president's silence and seclusion since the operation have spurred growing speculation about how ill Chavez might be.

Opponents say Chavez and his aides should be more straightforward.

"The uncertainty regarding Hugo Chavez's health and considerable speculation over the real illness affecting him reveal the government's serious constitutional violations," said Miguel Angel Rodriguez, an opposition lawmaker.

Under Venezuela's constitution, Chavez must "give us the diagnosis, talk to us about the treatment and answer questions," Rodriguez said in a statement.

Venezuelan officials have said Chavez is recuperating, but have provided few details.

Fernando Soto Rojas, president of the National Assembly, said rumors that Chavez has been diagnosed with cancer are false. He added that he expected the president to return home before July 5, Venezuela's independence day.

Chavez's Twitter stream has been active, but it has not provided any information about his health. Three messages appeared within 30 minutes Saturday afternoon, including one mentioning visits by Chavez's daughter Rosines and grandchildren.

"Ah, what happiness it is to receive this shower of love!" the Twitter message read. "God bless them!"

Nobody has heard Chavez speak publicly since he told Venezuelan state television by telephone on June 12 that he was quickly recovering from the surgery he had undergone two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. He said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.

It remains unclear when he will return to Venezuela. Chavez's mother, Elena, wished her son a speedy recovery on Sunday.

"May the power of God heal him and bring him to me," she told state television.

The vice president must take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, according to the constitution. Some opposition politicians have suggested Vice President Elias Jaua should replace Chavez until he recovers, a move that Jaua has ruled out.

If Chavez were to relinquish power, some analysts believe his political movement would crumble or split.

"No one else is really ready to step in and take charge," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "The current situation shows how precarious one-man rule is: Everything hinges on the whims of a single individual."

"A search for a successor to Chavez would significantly scramble the country's politics," Shifter said. "A fierce power struggle within Chavismo would almost certainly ensue."

Infighting also would likely break out within Venezuela's loosely knit opposition, which plans to hold a primary to pick a presidential candidate for next year's election.

"The opposition would also be thrown off balance," Shifter said. "Their single-minded focus on Chavez has kept them more united in recent years."

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