President Chávez’s illness

While for once politics on the home front could hardly be described as lacking in diversion, our small-scale drama pales into insignificance in comparison to the one being played out to our west. It was a little over three weeks ago that the Venezuelan public was informed that President Hugo Chávez had undergone an operation for a “pelvic abscess” in Cuba, where he was on a state visit. He had arrived there after visiting Brasilia and then Ecuador, and was due to return to Caracas on June 10. However, surgery was performed on him on June 11, and the following day the patient spoke by phone to Venezuelan TV to inform the nation that tests showed no sign of any “malignant” illness. This was a somewhat strange communication, since at that point no one – not even the most rancorous elements among the opposition – had so much as hinted that a serious illness was involved.

This assurance was echoed some time later by President of the National Assembly, Soto Rojas, who told the public that rumours President Chávez had cancer were false. By this time, however, the normally voluble head of state had been silent for days, and the nation was reverberating with stories that he was suffering from cancer. El Nuevo Herald (the Spanish-language companion to the Miami Herald) reported unidentified intelligence sources as saying among other things, that the President had prostate cancer and had an 80% chance of survival, while the Venezuelan daily El Universal in its Runrunes [Rumours] column adopted a not dissimilar, if more exaggerated line.

According to the Miami Herald, however, there were many on the streets of Caracas who simply didn’t believe that Mr Chávez was ill at all, and thought he was simply exploiting people for the sake of an elections gimmick (elections are due next year). He would suddenly return to mass public expressions of relief, they said, in time for Venezuela’s bicentenary celebrations, and the launching of the new Caribbean and Latin American organization (CELAC) on July 5.

Lack of information only fed the rumour-mongering, and the Caracas paper El Nacional complained in an editorial that “incompetent Cabinet ministers are turning this [Chávez’s illness] into a complete mystery or a state secret that creates uncertainty and anxiety within the population” (Translation from the Miami Herald). One suspects, however, that senior ministers, even if they had access to information about their boss’s health status which is by no means certain, were under instructions to say nothing. As it was, none of them came forward to give the appearance of being in control of affairs; in fact Vice-President Elías Jaua insisted the President was running the government from Cuba.

Political scientists have commented that Mr Jaua has lasted so long in Mr Chávez’s inner circle simply because he doesn’t challenge him, and the same goes for the other ministers who are not going to put themselves in a position where their motives might be misconstrued. However, the net result of all this self-effacement is the public’s perception of a power vacuum.

There is one person, however, who did raise his head above the level of the crowd, and that was the President’s older brother, Adán Chávez, who is Governor of Barinas state. At first he just announced that his brother would return to Venezuela in ten or twelve days, which was harmless enough, but a subsequent speech brought him to international attention. “As authentic revolutionaries we cannot forget other forms of fighting,” he was reported as saying, and was then said to have gone on to quote Ché Guevara: “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not use other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle.” The Venezuelan political universe was abuzz with theories about what he could possibly have meant, and whether he was positioning himself as a potential successor. In that connection, it might merely be observed that on Friday, the New York Times reported that state television had shown a video dated June 29 of the President in a work session in Cuba with the head of the armed forces, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and his brother Adán Chávez.

President Chávez’s silence lasted twelve days, and was broken on June 24 with a Twitter message, in which he wrote, “A big hug to my soldiers and to my beloved people,” and ending in his typical style, “Victory always! We are winning! And we will win!” Then came the release of the video of himself and Fidel Castro reading Granma in a garden and the announcement of the postponement of the CELAC meeting. At that point, the political commentators knew the President had to be genuinely ill, and that the illness was of a serious nature.

Finally, of course, on June 30, a pale Hugo Chávez told Venezuelans that he had not been feeling well for weeks and had made the mistake of ignoring his health. The pelvic abscess, he said, had been treated on June 11, and the doctors had noticed a tumour which was malignant and had to be removed in a second operation. He then said that he was undergoing “complementary treatments to address diverse cells which were found.” In the video mentioned above, he was reported as also saying that he was continuing his rehabilitation and reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, hardly, one might have thought, light reading for a convalescent.

While confirming that he had cancer, however, Mr Chávez did not reveal where the primary tumour was sited or any details about what stage it had reached, and as a consequence he has now set off the second round of rumours related to this topic. On Friday Reuters reported the opinion of a gastrointestinal cancer specialist it had consulted (he thought prostate cancer not the most likely diagnosis), and no doubt other media will do the same. Withholding information, therefore, has only served to feed speculation, and has created the impression that no one knows what is going on, and by extension, no one is in charge, despite the fact that the army has been at pains to disabuse the public of this notion.

The question of recovery and how fast this can be achieved is critical, because the President runs an administration which revolves around him personally, where he does not fully delegate, and where he has no obvious successor. As the Miami Herald put it, the political future hangs on how sick he is. The paper quoted Venezuelan political scientist Anibal Romero as commenting there was no chavismo without Chávez: “It is a personal project, and it lives and ends with him.” Even if in a few months the President can take up the reins again, it would not be with the vigour that has been associated with him in the past, and whether he would be able to discharge all the duties he used to take on is doubtful.

In the meantime, Vice-President Jaua was reported by the New York Times as explaining that the government was relying on an interpretation of the constitution which would allow the President to exercise his powers from abroad for three months, and that this could then be extended for another three months. The paper reported lawyers as saying that the constitution was vague on the matter of the replacement of the president.

For its part, however, the opposition has deemed government from Cuba as unconstitutional, and has claimed that for temporary absences of up to 90 days, the Vice-President should assume the reins. Whatever the constitutional position, if the President is away for a matter of months, centrifugal tendencies are likely to manifest themselves, added to which the opposition is likely to assert itself. It is quite possible, of course, that some of Mr Chávez’s treatment could be undertaken in Venezuela, although whether in those circumstances he would be able to assume a full workload would be an issue, and any gaps in administration would clearly present a problem. Whatever the case, the situation would not lend itself necessarily to great stability.

As far as this country is concerned, it should follow events next door closely. The government has come to take for granted the seemingly benign relationship Guyana has enjoyed with Venezuela for most of Mr Chávez’s period office, but there is no guarantee that the current state of affairs will survive in the longer term.

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