Hugo Chavez Returns to Venezuela. What Happens Next?

New Elections are Still a Real Possibility

Feb. 18, 2012— -- Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela in the early hours of Monday morning, two months after heading to Cuba for cancer surgery.

There are still no images of him in the country, but according to government officials, the president arrived around 2:30 a.m. local time in a private flight. He was then immediately taken to a military hospital in Caracas. A message published on Chávez's personal Twitter account at 3:42 a.m. confirms this.

"We have arrived in Venezuela once again. Thank you god, thank you my beloved people. We will continue treatment here," says the tweet, which is supposedly written by Chávez himself.

So is this the start of a surprise comeback for the cancer-stricken socialist leader? Probably not, says Jose Marquina, a Florida-based Venezuelan doctor who claims to get inside info on Chávez's closely guarded health status.

Marquina contends that Chávez's cancer, for which he has had four operations in the past 18 months, has reached a point of no return, and is slowly spreading from his pelvic area, into vital organs like the pancreas and the lungs.

"There was no sense for him to be in Cuba, when there are no more treatments that can be offered," Marquina tweeted in Spanish on Monday morning. "At this point of the disease there are no more curative treatments, only palliative ones," the doctor also wrote on his twitter account.

According to Marquina, Chávez has only two to three months left to live, and could have possibly returned home to spend time with friends and relatives.

Marquina has previously been right about the president's health problems. In January, for example, Marquina said that Chávez was suffering a respiratory infection, a couple days before the Venezuelan government acknowledged this same problem in a public statement.

So what happens next in Venezuela?

One interesting development that could take place, is that the Supreme Court formally swears Chávez into his fourth term in office, as the Venezuelan leader missed his swearing in ceremony on January 10.

Such a ceremony would quiet legal challenges from opposition groups, which have been arguing for weeks that there is a power vacuum in the country, and new elections must be held, as Chávez was not officially sworn into his fourth term.

However, if doctor Marquina is right about Chávez's short life expectancy, new elections will have to be held anyway after Chávez dies, or if his frail health condition leads him to retire from office.

According to the Venezuelan constitution, elections have to be "called for" within 30 days of a president´s death or retirement, but the rules are not so clear as to when elections actually have to take place.

Political analysts in Venezuela say that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a close Chávez ally, is the favorite to win. But this could change if economic problems continue to plague the country and force the government to cut back on social programs. If you consider that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles lost by ten points to Chávez in the October presidential elections, and that Maduro is not as well liked or as charismatic as Chávez, the next election could be pretty close.

Of course there is also the possibility that Chávez will make a surprising recovery and will once again be healthy enough to appear in public, and serve out his presidential term, which runs through 2018.

But chances are slim with even government officials saying last week that his condition is delicate, difficult, and that he is "fighting for his life."

For the moment however, Chávez's surprise comeback provides a glimmer of hope to supporters, who welcomed news of his arrival with fireworks, and even gathered in front of the military hospital where Chávez is staying in Caracas.

Chávez's return also takes away some attention from the daily problems that have beset his government, like soaring crime rates, and serious food shortages.

Just last week, the Venezuelan government was also forced to devalue the national currency, the Bolivar, by 30 percent of its value relative to the U.S. dollar. This move was necessary in order for the national oil company PDVSA to get more local cash for each barrel of oil it sells, money which can then be diverted to social programs. But devaluation is also expected to drive up the country´s steep inflation rate, it makes crucial food imports more expensive, and it also means that people´s savings are now worth less. Chávez has returned to Venezuela, in the middle of difficult times.