Published by TIME
When Venezuelan authorities announced a long-overdue devaluation of their currency last week, ministers insisted that the command had come directly from President Hugo Chávez. “We have taken this as a presidential order,” insisted Finance Minister Jorge Giordani. “The President is commanding and taking decisions,” added Elías Jaua, the newly appointed Foreign Minister. According to Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, Chávez is even examining images beamed back from the country’s flagship Miranda satellite.
It seems difficult to believe Chávez continues to govern, having not been seen nor heard from since early December when he went through a six-hour operation in Havana. It was the fourth such treatment in a year and a half. Since the operation, no photos, audio or video recordings have been made public of the usually garrulous leader. But, despite his absence, Chávez has still cast a long shadow. His party won regional elections in a landslide in December; the sheer power of his celebrity led to tens of thousands of red-clad supporters flooding the streets for a Jan. 10 inauguration where he was nowhere in sight. The ailing 58-year-old is becoming a living martyr.
But the glow of his aura can’t obscure the country’s real problems, which include one of the highest murder rates in the world. More than 21,000 were killed in Venezuela in 2012; a further 500 were killed just in the country’s prisons. Venezuela suffered its worst prison riot in nearly two decades last month. “We want Chávez to come here to give us news,” says Josefina Ramírez, 36, waiting outside the gates of a prison in Uribana, near the city of Barquisimeto, for news of her husband who was inside. Around 60 inmates were killed in a standoff with authorities. “We’re suffering here, and the government is saying nothing.”
The Venezuelan government is good at saying nothing. Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas’ pronouncements on El Comandante’s health have been vague and cryptic, sometimes even contradicting those of other ministers privileged enough to have traveled to Havana to visit their President. The confusion has bred comedy. El Chigüire Bipolar (The Bipolar Capybara) — the country’s answer to the Onion — parodied Vice President Nicolás Maduro with Orwellian language: “The President is stable, some days less stable, some days more stable and occasionally is in a state of excessive stability.”
The information vacuum on Chávez’s health has been filled with rumors, fueled by those opposed to the President’s left-wing rule. Across the Atlantic, the Spanish media have led the braying pack, with El País publishing a false photograph of an intubated Chávez and the daily newspaper ABC revealing that Chávez had permanently lost his voice and would not be returning to govern Venezuela. “This so-called information from ABC is about as true as the fake photo in El País,” said Villegas.
Venezuela’s opposition, long internally conflicted and demoralized since losing a presidential election in October and legislative ones in December, appears to be falling apart as its less-measured members scream and shout that by not appearing at his own inauguration, Chávez is no longer the President. “The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana,” said opposition figure Leopoldo López. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition’s leader who lost to Chávez in the recent presidential election, has remained relatively quiet though has continued to insist that Chávez should offer some proof of life. “If the President of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to show himself, to talk to Venezuela,” he said in January. (Proof of life has been offered by the government in the form of a signature, though this has been widely discounted as a fake.)
Both camps, in fact, look to be eyeing a forthcoming election. Should Chávez be declared unable to return to the presidency, the country’s National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello would take power for 30 days before elections take place. Any election would likely pit Maduro against Capriles. Maduro, surfing a wave of Chávez sympathy would undoubtedly win, says Luis Vicente León, a Caracas pollster who correctly predicted the outcome of October’s election. While Cabello and Maduro may not see eye to eye, they have been forced to unite for the greater good of their Chavista bloc. “In order to maintain power, they have to be unified,” says Vicente León. “Though Cabello could be a challenge for Maduro in the long term.”
Cabello has echoed Chávez’s vehement rhetoric against the opposition, likening Capriles to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar; Capriles in turn compared Cabello to prohibition-era Chicago gangster Al Capone. “Make no mistake,” the opposition leader said as he accused the government of participating in a smear campaign, “they want to come for me.” Vicente León, the pollster, can see where Capriles is coming from: “They are attacking the opposition with corruption [charges] because they need to keep attention off Chávez’s absence.” Graft is embedded in Venezuela’s history, from dictatorship in the 1950s, through the second half of the 20th century in which two notoriously kleptocratic, elitist parties juggled power between themselves, right up to allegations today that top Chávez officials are siphoning money from the country’s huge oil reserves.
The heated atmospherics of the moment have, at times, led to political farce. While Venezuelan governance is often sartorially informal — Chávez often wears a tracksuit, in the style of his mentor Fidel Castro — it took a surreal turn at the National Assembly earlier this month when legislators from both the opposition and government wore baseball caps in the colors of the Venezuelan flag as they argued over the commandeering of a national symbol. “This cap belongs to the revolution,” said belligerent former army lieutenant Cabello. The opposition, he said, was in love with another flag — one “with 51 stars, the gringo [U.S.] flag.”
A few days later, Venezuelan television and media were flooded with images of Chávez wearing the cap. While leaders on both sides can flaunt nationalist symbols and launch vacuous bromides, it remains to be seen whether chavismo can really survive without Chávez. “We shall wait,” says Carlos Rivero, a 41-year-old engineer based in Caracas. “In Venezuela, life is on hold.”