The worrisome absence of Hugo Chavez
Photo: Girish Gupta

The worrisome absence of Hugo Chavez

GlobalPost | Jun. 29, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Hugo Chavez has never been predictable.

During his 13 years in power, the fiery socialist leader of Venezuela has demonstrated his ability to ride out all sorts of problems — coup attempts, a crippling oil strike and more generally, an economy that is walking a tight-rope across a well of hyper-inflation.

Perpetually on television, radio, even Twitter [3], Chavez has built his success through the power of personality. His public relations skills are second to none. He is playful with children, a master at conversation and, failing all else, has a loveable smile that still mesmerizes many so-called Chavistas.

For that reason, more than two weeks of shying away from publicity is worrying. It is worrying not only for politically volatile Venezuela, but also for his own ministers, who are too nervous to say anything, but have been forced to by growing criticism.

Their clumsy and contradictory statements as Chavez languishes in a Havana hospital echo the socialist leader’s own silence and amplify rumors which on Sunday reached their nadir with “news” of Chavez’s death spreading on Twitter.

The consensus rumor in Venezuela is that the socialist leader is suffering prostate cancer. While completely unsubstantiated, the rumor appeared in print this week as well-known local journalist Nelson Bocaranda cited medical sources; U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor corroborated. The official line continues to be that Chavez is convalescing following an operation to remove a pelvic abscess on June 10.

Proof of life, though little else, has been given in images that show Chavez with fellow revolutionaries Fidel and Raul Castro, next to his hospital bed. A further set [4] was released last night to quell the rumors back home. They show three frail men, Chavez clad in his infamous yellow, blue and red tracksuit that resembles his country’s flag. Memories of Fidel Castro’s own demise to poor health five years ago immediately spring to mind. Back then, younger brother Raul took over.

In Venezuela, Chavez’s elder brother Adan has begun to lead the government after Vice President Elias Jaua failed to take the helm either officially, by still not having stepped in as interim leader, or even in spirit. Jaua’s visit to a socialist chocolate factory, beamed across state television, may have been in the same vein as his boss but lacked the charisma that makes Chavez such a powerful foe for the opposition.

The opposition themselves have taken their time in jumping on the situation. Popular and charismatic — in a way strikingly reminiscent of Chavez — Henrique Capriles Radonski was keen to look at the bigger picture.

“The country's problems are not whether the president is or is not sick,” he said. Focus is being shifted from the real ills of Venezuela, he added, citing the El Rodeo prison riots [5], where a stalemate continues between troops and inmates nearly three weeks after initial violence at the jail east of Caracas.

“To me the problem is what is going on in El Rodeo, the electrical problem and all the problems that every day we must solve as Venezuelans.”

These thoughts are shared by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “The country's problems are profound and, as long as [Chavez] remains in charge, do not seem to be reversible. Whatever health issues he has and how those might affect his image pale in comparison to the deterioration in the economy and security situation.”

Power outages [6], growing insecurity and prison riots have afflicted Venezuelans for years. Yet, Chavez has a knack of riding out the storms, even when no end appears in sight. “Chavez is resourceful and should not be underestimated,” added Shifter. “Venezuelans are unhappy, but to date Chavez has managed to escape much blame. After more than 12 years in office that is quite a testament to his political skills.”

Shifter does, however, admit that Chavez will “come out of this drama somewhat debilitated” in the view of increasing numbers of Venezuelans as well as those abroad.

Analysts are speculating on possible scenarios for the future of both Venezuela and Chavez. In a worst-case scenario for Chavez in which he is forced to relinquish power, his deputy Jaua would be forced to take over until presidential elections are held at the end of next year. This would no doubt spell the end of the Bolivarian revolution, which many see as inextricably linked with Chavez.

While many countries struggle to do business with Venezuela, this could spell disaster for some of those that do, especially those on positive terms such as Cuba, whose economy is propped up by cheap oil from Chavez. Relations with the United States may improve. Venezuela is the country’s fourth largest oil supplier.

However, there is likely to be a period of domestic chaos as supporters of Chavez worryingly watch the demise of the one man who they believe has made life bearable after decades of corruption. More than half of Venezuelans were living in poverty when Chavez came into power.

The deadline for Chavez’s return is July 5. The National Assembly has promised that the socialist leader will be back by then to welcome the region’s heads of state — with the notable exception of the U.S. and Canada — for the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development on Margarita Island just off Caracas.

Here, they hope to build foundations for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, essentially an organization to counter U.S. influence in the region.

July 5 also marks the country’s 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. “It is absolutely crucial for Chavez to make that appearance while these power struggles are intensifying,” said Reva Bhalla, an analyst at intelligence firm Stratfor.

Chavez is a firebrand revolutionary, keen to do away with any remaining fragments of the shackles of imperialism. A bicentenary will only come around once in Chavez’s presidency and he and his supporters will be very keen for his leadership on that date.