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Questions Crop Up Around Health of Returning Chavez, Governance of Venezuela

February 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The return of Hugo Chavez inspires a myriad of questions about the president's health, the state of the country and who is really running Venezuela. To help address those questions, Ray Suarez interviews Ian James, Caracas bureau chief for the Associated Press.

RAY SUAREZ: And I’m joined Ian James, Caracas bureau chief for the Associated Press.

Ian, he’s taken smiling photographs, he’s flown home. He’s Tweeting his followers. But at long last, do Venezuelans have any more idea than they had before what’s wrong with Hugo Chavez, how sick he is, what the nature of his recurrence was, anything?

IAN JAMES, Associated Press: No, they don’t.

And those are key questions. It’s not really clear what type of treatment he’s continuing to receive. The government has said that the treatments are extremely complex and tough. But, beyond that, it’s not known what type of treatments they are.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the Venezuelan state sort of frank about the fact that they’re treating Hugo Chavez’s illness as a state secret?

IAN JAMES: Well, the government says it’s been giving frequent updates about Chavez’s health, and the opposition says that much more information should be given about his health, considering the seriousness of the situation.

So it becomes one more political argument in this country. And in the meantime, everything is up in the air. And for many Venezuelans, it’s basically a wait-and-see type situation.

RAY SUAREZ: The president is still said to enjoy widespread support in the country. What do regular people say in shops, in cafes, in the supermarket about what’s going on with their president?

IAN JAMES: Well, I think, you know, there are some people saying on both sides of the divide here that they would like to know more about, you know, specifically what Chavez has, what stage his cancer is at, at this point, and what his condition involves and what his treatment involves at this moment.

You’re hearing that from both Chavez supporters and from opponents. And I think there’s a pretty widespread feeling that the way things are moving right now, it’s — some sort of resolution is likely to happen relatively soon.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, here’s a man who has been out of the country for more than two months. In his absence, has the government had to make some painful and unpopular decisions?

IAN JAMES: Yes, the government announced a devaluation while Chavez was away. And they said that was a decision that was consulted with him.

And, of course, it was a decision that many experts here thought that the government might put off for a bit longer precisely because of that reason, because it is a rather controversial decision that was criticized by the main opposition leader.

RAY SUAREZ: So, did the prices of all consumer goods immediately rise once that devaluation was announced?

IAN JAMES: No, they didn’t. And the reason for that is a bit complicated. But it’s basically that the government is sort of easing in to the devaluation by allowing some purchases of certain goods that were already approved through the government currency agency for a limited time, because they were already approved, that those purchases can be made and those dollars can be made available.

And that is lessening somewhat the immediate impact on inflation, although inflation is already at 22 percent, and most economists say they think it’s likely to be pushed higher as a result of the devaluation.

RAY SUAREZ: Who would you say is really running the country right now? Is it the head of the national assembly, the vice president, a group of leaders of the Chavez party? Who is in charge?

IAN JAMES: Well, if you ask the government that question, President Chavez continues to be in charge. Of course, Vice President Nicolas Maduro has taken on many additional responsibilities while Chavez has been away.

And that question is one that I think many people are asking themselves now in Venezuela. Who is really in charge? And how is this likely to evolve?

RAY SUAREZ: Does the return of the president to Caracas really settle anything in?

IAN JAMES: I don’t think it settles anything until it’s clear what’s likely to happen both with Chavez’s health and with the political situation in the country. They’re both big question marks for many people.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the opposition, which so recently lost to the president in his reelection bid, been more open about calling for a reexamination?

IAN JAMES: A reexamination?

Well, the opposition has been quite consistent in saying that more information should be given to the public about Chavez’s condition, that there should be a medical report, and that the people should know precisely what he has, what the outlook is and what the required treatments are at this stage.

RAY SUAREZ: Ian James of the Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

IAN JAMES: Thank you.