Mr Chávez’s toughest battle

Love him or loathe him, everyone recognizes that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is a fighter. Now, the former paratrooper colonel cum failed coup leader and democratically elected president cum revolutionary populist with authoritarian tendencies is engaged in the toughest battle of his 56 years.

Over the weekend, Mr Chávez returned to Cuba to continue his medical treatment for what has belatedly been officially acknowledged to be cancer. He will undergo chemotherapy following the surgical removal in Havana on June 11, 2011, of a “pelvic abscess” followed by another operation on June 20 to remove a malignant “baseball-sized” tumour.

While we have been giving considerable attention recently to Mr Chávez’s ailment and to the implications for his country and the region, we believe that a few aspects of the situation are worthy of further comment.

Although it has not yet been announced what type of cancer Mr Chávez is suffering from (the rumours abroad range from prostate to colon cancer), it is good that he and his government are finally being relatively frank about his illness, after weeks of official evasiveness.

The choice of Cuba for his treatment is hardly surprising given the close ties between the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the communist state and Mr Chávez’s almost filial relationship with Fidel Castro. It is interesting though that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a cancer survivor herself, had invited Mr Chávez to be treated at a specialist hospital in São Paulo, where she had been a patient. Some analysts have suggested that, in addition to having begun his treatment in Cuba, the Venezuelan President will enjoy stricter confidentiality there than in Brazil’s more open society.

A person’s right to privacy is obviously important but Mr Chávez is a very public figure and the leader of his country. And as we opined in our editorial of July 3 last, (‘President Chávez’s illness’), withholding information only serves to feed speculation and create the impression that no one knows what is going on and that no one is in charge.

In this respect, it is now believed that Mr Chávez returned home for two weeks following his surgery, to try to control internal conflicts as members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) jockeyed for position in his absence and to reassure the populace, with characteristic displays of energy and passion, that he was still in charge. He also clearly had an eye firmly on next year’s elections, which he and members of the government insist he will contest.

Mr Chávez and Venezuela appear, however, to be in for a prolonged period of uncertainty during the President’s enforced absence from the country. While it has been announced that Mr Chávez has delegated mainly administrative powers to his vice-president, Elías Jaua, and has given the Finance Minister, Jorge Giordani, the authority to take measures related to the budget, the President will use an electronic signature to sign decrees and other documents while he is hospitalised in Cuba. Mr Chávez has stated that, in delegating, he does not intend to give up governing, as some elements of the opposition would wish, since he is still capable of exercising the functions of state.

Critically, though, as argued by Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank, in an article on July 15, ‘Chávez, no longer such a strongman,’ Mr Chávez’s illness “will inevitably compound his already serious political problems in Venezuela,” especially under  “a system that depends on one person to make all decisions.” Mr Shifter explains further: “Delegating power and authority has not been Chávez’s strength throughout his military and political career.  On the contrary, he has increasingly concentrated power in his own hands, that today has meant a huge political vacuum and enormous uncertainty. That, after all, is the nature – and consequences – of strongman rule.” It is hard to find fault with Mr Shifter’s salutary reminder about the flaws of one-man rule.

But one should not write off Mr Chávez too quickly. Anyone who has experienced cancer, either directly or through a friend or relative, will know what a dreadful disease it is. It is therefore a matter of genuine regret that Mr Chávez has been thus stricken, but the will to fight can be a powerfully positive, if scientifically unproven, factor. Nevertheless, the prognosis for Mr Chávez is currently as uncertain as it is for Venezuela, so closely are the fortunes of both intertwined.

Last Friday, during a televised address in which President Chávez asked the National Assembly to approve his absence, the seriousness of his illness was obvious to all, as his daughter fought back tears and other close associates appeared to be fairly emotional. Then on Monday, Mr Chávez himself acknowledged that he was “fighting for [his] life.” Regardless of one’s politics and one’s concerns about the political situation in Venezuela, Mr Chávez and his family are deserving of one’s empathy.

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