Venezuelans puzzle over official lingo on Chavez health crisis

CARACAS,  (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bespectacled and shaven-headed information minister stands solemnly at the microphone to impart the latest news on President Hugo Chavez’s cancer.

For a couple of minutes, vague descriptions of the patient’s “stability”, “progressive tendency” or “complications” waft across TV and radio airwaves into millions of Venezuelan homes.

“You see, he’s recovering,” says one Venezuelan man in a group watching live one of Information Minister Ernesto Villegas’ medical updates, almost a national ritual since the socialist Chavez disappeared from public view six weeks ago.

“Rubbish – it’s obvious he’s dying,” retorts another as the friends draw varying conclusions from the confusing report.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas

The handling of information over Chavez’s condition has become as controversial as the man himself, and every official word is picked over ad nauseam in Venezuela’s own version of the “Kremlinology” analysis of political minutiae in the former Soviet Union.

Since Chavez underwent his fourth and most serious cancer operation in Cuba on Dec. 11, he has not spoken a word in public. The government has tried to fill the information void with regular communiques – nearly 30 so far – by Villegas and Vice-President Nicolas Maduro.

They are often tricky to interpret.


“President Chavez’s state of health continues to be delicate, presenting complications that are being attended in a process not exempt of risk,” read one statement just after Christmas, when there were rumors Chavez was on life support.

Some of the most specific have referred to Chavez’s “breathing insufficiency” due to a lung infection. The term covers a large gamut of possibilities in Venezuelans’ minds.

“The patient is in a state of progressive and favorable recovery of the normal values of his vital signs,” said another communique, begging the question of what state he was in prior to that apparent upturn.

While the words “stability” and “progressive” have cropped up over and over, the first appearance of the word “stationary” in a Jan. 7 communique puzzled some.

“The president finds himself in a stationary situation in relation to what was described in the most recent report,” it read. “Treatment is being applied permanently and rigorously, and the patient is assimilating it,” it added, without a word on what that treatment consisted of.

On Christmas Eve, mixing their messages, Villegas said Chavez was in “absolute rest” while Maduro assured Venezuelans a few hours later he was exercising. Of late, the communiques have become more optimistic about Chavez’s “favorable evolution” and “new phase” with officials hinting at a possible homecoming.

Such language, critics say, is reminiscent of the confusion over various Russian leaders’ illnesses, from Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924 to a stream of others during the Cold War, or the secrecy-shrouded demise of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

There is a parallel, too, with the official reticence in Cuba over the health problems of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who mentored Chavez and is his closest ally.

By contrast, other Latin American leaders who have in recent years suffered cancer – including from Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay – have authorized doctors to release full details.

At first, after being diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic region in mid-2011, Chavez was his own spokesman. His emotive personality always came through, fighting back tears when explaining the illness then brimming with joy at declarations of recovery that later proved wrong.

Yet throughout the speeches, there were few hard medical details, rather descriptions of a “baseball-sized tumor” or the “miracle” of recovery, and musings on his journey to the “abyss” laced with quotes from German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche.


Many Venezuelans have been going to unofficial internet “sources” to hunt for more about Chavez’s health.

Most high-profile are Nelson Bocaranda, an opposition journalist and columnist with more than a million Twitter followers, and Jose Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor in Miami whose tweets alternate between complex medical terminology and caustic political attacks.

Both men claim close sources among the Cuban, Venezuelan and Brazilian doctors treating Chavez. But plenty of would-be Internet oracles have got it wrong – various forecasts and talk of Chavez’s death have been premature and embarrassing.

Amid the barrage of opposition complaints over secrecy, the government says it has never been more open and lashes out at ill-intentioned “necrophiliacs” demanding more.

Opposition leaders want an independent medical committee to travel to Havana to see if Chavez is fit to continue in power. If not, he would have to hand over to a caretaker president prior to a new election as mandated by the constitution.

One group of humorists sought to lighten the grave national mood – and lampoon officials – with a merciless take on the Villegas-Maduro information double act.

“Commander Chavez is stable in that situation I won’t tell you about,” its spoof Villegas said. “He requires unspecified treatment to calm supposed problems that could affect him, or not, in the place of the illness, I mean, that thing.”

They were no less biting with Maduro, putting into his mouth a phrase reminiscent of English writer George Orwell’s famous send-up of totalitarianism in the book ‘Animal Farm’: “The president is stable, some days less stable, some days more stable, and sometimes in a state of excessive stability.”

Such mockery infuriates Chavez’s allies, who say opponents and foreign media are showing glee at his suffering.

One pro-government analyst acknowledged officials had been less than forthcoming, but said they were entitled to be given the “warlike” atmosphere in Venezuela, where opposition leaders spent years trying to force Chavez from office through national strikes, a failed coup and an oil industry shutdown.

Villegas himself described the mood as similar to the brief putsch against Chavez in April of 2002, when foes exulted while supporters trusted in the president’s return.

“No one believed it and they said we were liars,” said Villegas, who worked at state TV at the time. “Then he came back, took out his crucifix and spoke. It can happen just like that again you know, friends.”

Latest in Regional News

default placeholder

Man arrested in Brazil for attempt to douse Olympic torch

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – A man has been arrested for trying to extinguish the Olympic torch by throwing a bucket of water over it as it passed through his farming town of Maracaju in central Brazil, an officer at the local police station said yesterday.

default placeholder

‘Three Amigos’ to set clean energy goal of 50% by 2025 – White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will this week agree that their three countries will aim to produce 50 per cent of their power from clean energy sources by 2025, the White House said yesterday.

default placeholder

Seventeen Colombia soldiers killed in helicopter crash

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Seventeen  Colombian soldiers died when their Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter crashed in a central mountainous area of the Andean country, the army said on yesterday.

default placeholder

Magnitude 5.7 quake shakes southern Mexico, no damage reported

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca yesterday, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, shaking buildings as far away as Mexico City, but officials reported there was no immediate damage.

default placeholder

Cuban hotel becomes first to operate under US brand

HAVANA (Reuters) – A large “Four Points by Sheraton” sign has gone up outside the Havana hotel that this week becomes the first in Cuba to operate under a US brand since the 1959 revolution.

default placeholder

Panama opens canal extension amid growth risks, cost battle

PANAMA CITY, (Reuters) – Panama opened the long-delayed $5.4 billion expansion of its shipping canal amid cheering crowds yesterday, despite looming economic uncertainty in the shipping industry and a heated battle over billions in cost overruns.

default placeholder

Brazil firm fired from T&T highway project

(Trinidad Express) Brazilian firm Construtora OAS has been fired from the $7 billion Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin. But even in the face of harsh criticism from Government, the embattled company is fighting back to defend its work on the stalled project and denying it abandoned the massive highway extension.

default placeholder

One dead, three hurt in T&T drive-by shooting

(Trinidad Express) Four people liming roadside near a birthday celebration were shot in a drive by attack in Carapichaima on Saturday.


About these comments

The comments section is intended to provide a forum for reasoned and reasonable debate on the newspaper's content and is an extension of the newspaper and what it has become well known for over its history: accuracy, balance and fairness. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments which contain attacks on other users, slander, coarse language and profanity, and gratuitous and incendiary references to race and ethnicity.

Stay updated! Follow Stabroek News on Facebook or Twitter.

Get the day's headlines from SN in your inbox every morning: