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Chavez's health clouds 'polarized' Venezuela during election year: US

WASHINGTON -- Venezuela is heading into a “highly competitive and polarized” election year amid continuing doubts about President Hugo Chavez's health and a host of pressing issues, the U.S. intelligence chief said Tuesday.

Intelligence director James Clapper said Venezuela's October elections will tell whether the key features of Chavez's 12 years in power — a weakening democracy and virulent anti-U.S. policies — “persist and even deepen or begin to reverse.”

“Venezuelan politics will be highly competitive and polarized over the next year,” Clapper said in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Chavez, 57, has said he is running for six more years in office, which would mean his third term as president of the oil-rich South American country, despite a bout with cancer which he says is now cured.

He underwent surgery in Cuba in June to remove a tumor and four rounds of chemotherapy, but neither he nor his government have been forthcoming about the specifics of the cancer.

“Chavez announced that he is cancer-free, but there are still doubts about his health,” said Clapper.

“And there is no other leader who can match his charisma, force of personality, or ability to manipulate politics and policy should he be unable to run again,” he added.

“In addition, his failure to groom others to lead his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) means that any successor would lack his stature.”

Clapper predicted that once the election campaign begins next month, “the electorate will be seeking solutions for the country's 25 percent inflation, widespread food and energy shortages, and soaring crime and homicide rates.”

He classed Chavez among a group of populist, authoritarian leaders — along with those in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua — who “are undercutting representative democracy and consolidating power in their executives.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month visited Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba, but Clapper said the visit was “not all that successful.”

However, Washington remains concerned about Iran's ties to governments in the region, he added, saying “we do follow that.”

Cuba, meanwhile, is proceeding cautiously with reforms of its Soviet-style economy, fearing that opening too rapidly could lead to political unrest, Clapper said.

“Wary of instability, authorities are only gradually implementing economic reforms announced last year,” he said.

“For example, the delay in the planned layoff of a million state workers reflects the sensitivity of the Castro regime as it observes uprisings elsewhere in the world.”

“Cuban leaders are also concerned that economic reform will increase pressure on them for a political opening and greater individual rights,” he said.

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