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Why Hugo Chavez's return cancelled Baird’s trip to Venezeula

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez ride on the top of a truck in front of a military hospital, where Chavez is being treated, in Caracas February 19, 2013.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS

John Baird has found out first-hand that in Venezuela no one comes before El Presidente.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to Caracas on Monday after 10 weeks of cancer treatment in Cuba has set his country, and much of Latin America, abuzz.

But it also seems to have derailed the planned visit by Mr. Baird, who was scheduled to travel to the South American country for the kind of high-level bilateral talks no Canadian foreign minister has had in Caracas since Joe Clark's trip to the country in 1986.

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On Monday, Venezuela's Communications Minister, Ernesto Villegas, abruptly stated that Mr. Baird's visit has been cancelled "for scheduling reasons."

Mr. Baird's office provided no official reason for the change in plans, but said in a statement issued Tuesday that the foreign affairs minister, now in Panama during a tour of Latin America, hopes to "find another mutually convenient time to engage with Venezuela on matters related to economic prosperity and human rights."

But right now, Mr. Chavez's return is sucking up all of Venezuela's political oxygen. It's likely that Mr. Baird's plans to meet high-level Venezuelan figures like Vice-President Nicolas Maduro – the designated successor to Mr. Chavez if the president is forced to step down – would been a mere distraction in Caracas. And Mr. Baird's plan to meet opposition leaders was unlikely to be a quiet diplomatic encounter in the politically-charged atmosphere that now reigns in the country.

Supporters of Mr. Chavez demonstrated in downtown Caracas Tuesday with chants of "He's back," the Associated Press reported Tuesday. But the Venezuelan leader's return has renewed questions of what comes next.

There is speculation he will now be formally sworn in for his new term as president after missing a Jan. 10 ceremony because of his cancer treatment – but also questions about whether his illness will force him to step down.

The flamboyant, left-leaning populist has centralized power in his own hands and been a thorn in the side of the United States, as he worked to develop a "Bolivarian Alliance" in the region that opposes U.S. influence. But his popularity within Venezuela has reportedly risen during his cancer treatment.

Mr. Chavez's absence, and silence, during his 10-week treatment in Cuba has prompted opposition leaders to argue that his presidency is now illegitimate. But opinion polls suggest that if Mr. Chavez does step down, Mr. Maduro, his vice-president, will handily win elections to replace him.

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