UPDATE 1-Venezuela furious at Obama's comments on ailing Chavez

Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis
Reuters Middle East

* Sensitive moment in Venezuela over Chavez's cancer

* Socialist leader fighting to recover from operation

* Leader of Latin America's left seen as heir to Castro

CARACAS, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Venezuela's government reacted

with fury on Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama's criticism

of ailing Hugo Chavez's "authoritarian" government at a time of

national anxiety over his battle to recover from cancer surgery.

In an interview with U.S. network Univision, Obama declined

to speculate on the 58-year-old socialist president's health in

Cuba, where he is in a delicate state after his fourth operation

since mid-2011 for cancer in the pelvic region.

But he did say U.S. policy was aimed at ensuring "freedom"

in Venezuela. "The most important thing is to remember that the

future of Venezuela should be in the hands of the Venezuelan

people. We've seen from Chavez in the past authoritarian

policies, suppression of dissent," Obama told Univision.

Those remarks were a red cloth to officials in Caracas where

emotions are running high over the future of Chavez and his

self-styled revolution in the South American OPEC nation.

In power since 1999, Chavez is due to start a new six-year

term on Jan. 10 after winning re-election just weeks before

Obama did. His health crisis has thrown that into doubt, and

Chavez has named a successor in case he is incapacitated.

"With these despicable comments at such a delicate moment

for Venezuela, the U.S. president is responsible for a major

deterioration in bilateral relations, proving the continuity of

his policy of aggression and disrespect towards our country,"

the Venezuelan government said in a statement.


During his tumultuous 14-year rule, Chavez has taken former

Cuban leader Fidel Castro's mantle as the U.S. government's main

irritant in the region - though oil has continued to flow freely

north to the benefit of both nations' economies.

Adored by poor supporters for his charismatic style and

channeling of Venezuela's oil resources into a wide array of

welfare projects, Chavez is regarded as a dictator by opponents

who point to his often harsh treatment of political foes.

Officials said doctors had to use "corrective measures" to

stop unexpected bleeding caused during Tuesday's six-hour

surgery on Chavez, but his condition had since improved.

A medical update was due later on Friday.

Chavez's situation is being closely tracked around the

region, especially among fellow leftist-run nations from Cuba to

Bolivia who depend on his generous oil subsidies and other aid

for their fragile economies.

"The president is battling hard - this time for his life,

before it was for the Latin American fatherland," said President

Evo Morales of Bolivia, a Chavez friend and ally who announced

he was flying to Havana overnight for an "emergency" visit.

"This is very painful for us."


Chavez has not divulged details of the cancer that was first

diagnosed in June 2011, sparking endless speculation among

Venezuela's 29 million people and criticism from opposition

leaders for lack of transparency.

"They're hiding something, I think," said Venezuelan

housewife Alicia Marquina, 57. "I'm not convinced by the

announcements they're making. I'm not a 'chavista', but neither

am I cruel, I hope he does not suffer much and finds peace."

If Chavez has to leave office, new elections must be held

within 30 days. Chavez has named his vice president, Nicolas

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, as his

heir apparent.

Opposition flagbearer Henrique Capriles, who lost the

presidential race against Chavez in October, is the favorite to

face Maduro should a new vote be held, though first the governor

of Miranda must retain his post in local elections on Sunday.

"The regime change is already occurring," Jefferies'

managing director Siobhan Morden said in one of numerous Wall

Street analyses of events in Venezuela. "The question is whether

the alternative is Chavista-light or the opposition."

Even if he dies, Chavez is likely to cast a long shadow over

Venezuela's political landscape for years - not unlike Argentine

leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism is still the ideological

foundation of the country's dominant political party.

There are parallels with Cuba too, where Chavez's friend and

mentor, Fidel Castro, suffered a health downturn, underwent

various operations in secret, and eventually handed over to his

brother Raul Castro.

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