President Hugo Chavez’s revelation that he is battling cancer raises questions about the future of his drive to bring socialism to Venezuela and create a Latin America free of Washington’s influence.

The biggest question, though, is just how sick is he? Suddenly, the issue isn’t so much about how long Chavez should govern after 12 often tumultuous years in power, but how long he can.

In a surprise announcement on Thursday night, Chavez disclosed that he had a cancerous tumour removed while on a trip to Cuba last month, though he didn’t give details about what kind of cancer or say how soon he might return home.

During his tenure, Chavez has become a maverick leftist voice and an oil-rich benefactor for governments from Cuba to Nicaragua to Bolivia. His campaign to counter U.S. influence in Latin America has led him to build alliances with foes of Washington across the globe, from Iran to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Now the uncertainty over his health has raised questions about how long that will continue and whether a successor would maintain what Chavez’s opponents call his policy of “checkbook diplomacy” to prop up the region’s left. Chavez denies accusations that he has lavished excessive oil-funded aid on allies, saying his government’s oil deals with allies such as Cuba are mutually beneficial.

Chavez aides insisted yesterday that the president was still fully in charge and working from Cuba while recovering, though it was unclear how long his recuperation might take.

In the streets, hundreds of the ailing leader’s supporters poured into a downtown plaza, shouting “Onward, commander!”.

“With the grace of God, he’s going to get through all of this, and we’re going to wait for him to return with all the strength in the world,” said Luis Rodriguez, a Chavez supporter who joined the crowd.

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