The rampant speculation over the health of Hugo Chavez continues this week, but this time there appear to be more substantial indicators that the Venezuelan President may be concerned for his political future. Last week Chavez appointed a “council of state” headed by Vice President Elias Jaua to govern in his absence as he undergoes his final cancer therapy in Cuba. While the country’s 1999 constitution called for such a council to be created as a body of key advisors to the president, it was not activated until now because of Chavez’s signature dominant ruling style.
The Economist notes that the body is supposed to consist of “five members selected by the president, one by state governors, one by the legislature and the last by the Supreme Court,” and while only the president’s selections have been named, the others are all likely to be loyal to Chavez as well. Although the government that the role of this council will be purely advisory, some analysts insist that its creation was designed to establish a pool of successors should the president be unable to run in the upcoming October elections.
Fueling this talk is the notable change in tone that Chavez has adopted in recent weeks. As the Associated Press reports, the president has embraced a much more religious attitude lately, seemingly invoking the name of Jesus Christ more often than that of his political mentor and friend Fidel Castro. Chavez himself says that his experience with cancer has made him “more Christian.”
Others, however, see the religious shift as more of a political move in a heavily Catholic country than an indication of his deteriorating health. Venezuelan political analyst Luis Vicente Leontold the AP that this makes sense because "he cannot hide the illness, but he can hide its characteristics and danger, [and] he's decided to take as much advantage of it as he can, and one advantage is the symbolic and religious issue. He'll present himself as the chosen one, the man who has been cured and healed by the Lord to continue governing the country."
For his part, Chavez is continuing to express optimism about his prognosis. In an interview with state television via telephone from a hospital in Havana yesterday, he expressed faith that he would return to Venezuela soon and give the opposition a “resounding knockout” in October.
· More out in the English press about Sunday’s Mexican presidential debates. The Washington Post and Economist note that frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto dashed the hopes of his rivals that he would have a Rick Perry-style crisis moment during the event, which would likely be the only thing that could have an effect on his fifteen-point lead in the polls. The AP profiles another big winner of the evening, the “curvaceous model in a tight gown” that appeared briefly onstage with an urn filled with bits of paper which determined the order the candidates would speak.
· Colombian officials claim that drug kingpin Javier Antonio Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” turned himself in to U.S. drug officials in Aruba on Friday. LA Times and El Tiempo report that he is now being held in a prison in New York. Along with his brother Enrique, Calle Serna headed a notorious neo-paramilitary gang known as the Rastrojos in the country.
· The Associated Press on Sunday ran an interesting profile of the two Argentines charged with managing energy firm YPF after the Fernandez government announced its nationalization: YPF’s new manager Miguel Galuccio and Keynesian economist Axel Kicillof. While Galuccio is tasked with running the business side of YPF, Kicillof has been chosen to enforce the political aspect of the YPF, making sure that it is in line with the Fernandez administration’s priorities. The wire service offers a rather tender portrait of the 41 year-old economist, describing him as a rising star in the government with “penetrating blue eyes and Elvis Presley-style sideburns.”
· Meanwhile, the Americas Quarterly blog highlights remarks by EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, who said Argentina may face a retaliation for the nationalization.
· The Washington Post on Saturday reported on criticism of the taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Marti, which published an editorial by its director calling Cardinal Jaime Ortega (the head of the Church in Cuba) a “lackey” who expressed views that were “contrary to the doctrine of Christ.” The Marti editorial has since been taken down.
· After the fallout from the Secret Service scandal in Cartagena, Colombian lawmakers have proposed a bill which would give sex workers greater protection in the country.
· Honduras Culture and Politics looks at Reporters Without Borders’ recent selection of Honduran business tycoon Miguel Facussé as one of the world’s top “predators of the freedom to inform.” The blog points out that, unlike other Latin American countries where predators are drug cartels or armed movements, in Honduras “all it takes is to reach the exalted rank of predator of the freedom to inform is to be a powerful businessman with political connections.”
· While Guatemalan President Otto Perez was initially commended in some progressive circles for his openness to drug decriminalization, his crackdown on organized criminal activity in the country has human rights activists concerned. Inter Press Services reports that many in the country feel the president’s plan to lower crime constitutes political repression and does not focus enough on preventative measures.
· Ex-Prime Minister of the Bahamas Perry Christie and his opposition Progressive Liberal Party won elections in the Caribbean nation yesterday, beating the ruling Free National Movement.
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