Venezuela to probe Chavez cancer 'poisoning'
Acting president Maduro tells local TV "truth" will be sought, insisting president who died of cancer was "poisoned".
Last Modified: 12 Mar 2013 20:37
Maduro said foreign scientists would be invited to join a government commission to probe the accusation [Reuters]
|The Venezuelan government has said that it will set up a formal inquiry into suspicions that the late President Hugo Chavez's cancer was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad.|
The decision to probe the circumstances surrounding the former president's death comes days after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the foreign dignitaries at Chavez's funeral, alleged he died of a "suspect illness".
Acting President Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Chavez to run the country as the president underwent surgery in Cuba, also said the socialist leader had been "poisoned".
"We will seek the truth," Maduro told regional TV network Telesur late on Monday.
Foreign scientists will be invited to join a government commission to probe the accusation, the OPEC nation's acting leader said.
But the the accusation has been derided by critics of the government, who view it as a typical Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of "imperialist" threats to Venezuela's socialist system and distract people from daily problems.
Maduro, a candidate in the April 14 snap election to choose Venezuela’s new president, is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his millions of supporters, analysts said.
The opposition is centering its campaign on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent who, they say, is morbidly exploiting Chavez's demise.
"They're attacking him saying he isn't Chavez. Of course Nicolas isn't Chavez. But he is his faithful, responsible, revolutionary son," senior Socialist Party and campaign official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.
"All these insults and vilification are going to be turned into votes for us on April 14."
Running for the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition is a business-friendly state governor, Henrique Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year.
Tuesday was the last day of official mourning for Chavez, although ceremonies appear set to continue. His embalmed body was to be taken in procession to a military museum on Friday.
Millions have filed past Chavez's coffin to pay homage to a man who was adored by many of the poor for his humble roots and welfare policies, but was also hated by many people for his authoritarian style and bullying of opponents.
Hugo Chavez's US 'cancer plot' put to the numbers test
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speculated last month that the US might have used a secret weapon to give Latin American leaders cancer, as the number of them with the disease was "difficult to explain using the laws of probabilities" - but is it?
"Would it be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it?" Mr Chavez asked in a televised speech to soldiers at an army base.
Treated for cancer himself last year, he was speaking the day after the Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was diagnosed with the condition - or misdiagnosed, as it turned out.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, 64, had treatment for lymphoma in 2009.
Her predecessor, Lula da Silva, 66, has been treated for throat cancer.
Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, 60, was diagnosed with lymphoma in August 2010 but is now in remission after chemotherapy.
'Disease of the elderly'
This made five leaders out of a total of 24 Latin American countries, at the time of Mr Chavez's speech, although it became clear after an operation this month that President Fernandez was suffering from something else entirely.
Continue reading the main story
Latin American leaders and cancer
President Chavez stressed that he was thinking aloud rather than making "rash accusations". The US State Department described his comments as "horrific and reprehensible".
But was he right that such a concentration of cancer is statistically improbable?
Cancer is a very common disease, points out Eduardo Cazap, an Argentinian doctor and the president of the Union for International Cancer Control, based in Geneva.
Over a whole lifetime, the risk of cancer is around one in three for women and one in two for men.
At any one time it affects about 1% of the world's population.
In the case of the Latin American leaders, Dr Cazap says, their risk is higher than that of the general population because they are all in their 50s and 60s. Cancer is a "disease of the elderly", he points out.
Another issue to consider is the fact that the Latin American leaders were not diagnosed with cancer in the same year, but over a three-year period.
So, if we make a specific adjustment for the age group of the population and then multiply by three, five out of 24 - roughly one in five - is not a very unexpected number, Dr Cazap says.
It is worth noting that not all the leaders were diagnosed with cancer while in office - former Brazilian president Mr da Silva discovered he had throat cancer in the year after he stepped down.
Latin America currently has about 8 to 10% of the world's cancer cases, which is to be expected given its population of about 600 million - roughly 9% of the estimated world population of seven billion.
But the prevalence of cancer in the region is expected to increase "enormously" by 2020-30, Dr Cazap says.
"This compares to Europe, the US and Japan, where the cancer incidence will remain more or less stable in the next 20 years."
Dr Cazap says the main reason for this is that a number of Latin American countries are becoming more economically developed, which in turn is bringing rapid urbanisation and ageing populations.
As countries become wealthier, changes in lifestyle also occur, which lead to an increase in the number of people getting cancer.
High rates of smoking, obesity and a lack of physical exercise are also particular problems in the region.
So, given what we know about cancer in Latin America, can we be sure the US has not used a secret health weapon against Mr Chavez and the other leaders?
Apart from his misunderstanding of statistics - or the "law of probabilities", as he put it - another point to consider is that the different leaders have different types of cancer, and the biological mechanisms behind each are different.
Also, our bodies are in general pretty good at repairing any damage we do to them, which would complicate things for anyone trying to make a cancer-inducing weapon.
"Our body is extremely resistant to all the factors that could affect it. And when you need to produce cancer in an experimental manner you need to use huge amounts of drugs or huge amounts of toxins," says Dr Cazap.
Along with other health experts the BBC has contacted, he doesn't hesitate to conclude that Mr Chavez's "very imaginative version" of events is "difficult to apply to the reality".
12 March 2013 Last updated at 18:53 GMT
Venezuela to investigate Chavez murder allegations
Venezuelan officials have said they will set up an inquiry to investigate suspicions that President Hugo Chavez was murdered by foreign agencies.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told the BBC the United States and Israel were to blame for Mr Chavez's death.
He said he hoped the special commission would provide evidence.
Mr Chavez himself suggested he might have been injected by "foreign imperialist forces" after discovering he had cancer in 2011.
On an interview with BBC Mundo in Caracas, Mr Ramirez said he had no doubt that Mr Chavez's death was an act of confrontation and similar to Yasser Arafat's.
On the day Mr Chavez died, the Vice-President Nicolas Maduro also likened his case to the death of the Palestinian leader.
Venezuelan official rhetoric against the United States has stepped up since last Tuesday.
Hours before announcing the death of the leader, Mr Maduro said live on state television that a plot to "destabilise Venezuela" had been foiled.
He also said two US military attaches were being ordered out, accusing them of involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
Mr Maduro said that one day a scientific commission would prove that Mr Chavez's cancer had been "injected by imperialist forces".
On Monday, the US expelled two Venezuelan diplomats following the expulsion of their officials from Caracas.
The second secretary in Venezuela's Washington embassy, Orlando Jose Montanez, and New York consular official Victor Camacaro were declared personae non gratae on Saturday and left the US on Sunday, state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"When you have an incident that you consider unjust... you need to take reciprocal action and make your point clear," she added.
The Venezuelans were asked to leave a day after President Chavez's funeral, US officials said.
The two countries have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.