Virtually overnight, the image of President Hugo Chávez has been transformed. The tough, fire-breathing persona which the former army paratrooper brought with him to Venezuela’s presidency in 1999 has been supplanted by a stark and sudden reminder of his mortality. In June Caracas disclosed that Mr Chávez while in Cuba for a meeting had a relatively minor medical procedure. Subsequently, it was disclosed that he was stricken with cancer, and had had an operation to remove a tumour. His treatment since then has included four rounds of post-surgery chemotherapy.
Though President Chávez has declined to disclose the details of the cancer, he has been relatively open about his illness. He has appeared in public looking far from fit and well, and completely bald, a consequence of his chemotherapy treatment. Determined too to sustain his populist image, he appears to have taken personal charge of the periodic issuance of his own medical ‘bulletins,’ responding to speculation about the state of his health with upbeat pronouncements to the effect that the medical procedures have been successful. His preoccupation, clearly, is with seeking to provide both domestic and international audiences with assurances that he continues to be capable of governing Venezuela.
President Chávez’s assurances have done little to quell speculation that he is still battling a serious illness and that speculation has extended into assessments of the likely implications of his condition for his ability to continue to hold office.
Domestic and international interest in the state of Mr Chávez’s health is entirely understandable. Since assuming office twelve years ago, he has, for various reasons, attracted considerable attention both inside and outside Venezuela. At home, his stature as a maximum leader has grown, his larger-than-life personality miniaturizing the profiles of his political opponents, Resistance to his rule and to his socialist experiment has been relatively feeble.
A hemispheric foreign policy fashioned largely around extending generous oil-based support to other countries has helped to burnish his image in both Latin America and the Caribbean. Caricom, for example, has not been unmindful of Mr Chávez’s gestures. There are too, countries in the hemisphere, Bolivia perhaps being the best example, where Mr Chávez has presented himself as a kind of ideological mentor, championing the pursuit of a robust anti-imperialist crusade.
Mr Chávez’s close relations with the Cuban leadership, his persistent anti-American rhetoric, his slew of nationalizations that have included Western investors and, more recently, his public expressions of support for the former Gaddafi regime in Libya and the Assad administration in Syria have set him at odds with the United States. Relations between Caracas and Washington grow worse, not better. All of this, coupled with the fact that Venezuela is a major oil producer, makes President Chávez one of the world’s most high-profile leaders.
Those are among the reasons why President Chávez’s illness has attracted global attention. Interest in the state of his health raises issues that have to do, first, with whether the political landscape in Venezuela might be set for yet another sudden and radical change and, secondly, with the implications of the state of his health for Venezuela’s relations with the hemisphere, particularly the United States. Conceivably, too, Mr Chávez’s future might have implications for an already volatile global petro-political climate resulting from the current unstable situation in the Middle East.
If the fact that not a great deal is known at this juncture about just how ill President Chavez is – a circumstance that makes current speculation about his political future no more than pure conjecture – that does not invalidate the heightened domestic and international attention which his ailment is attracting. President Chávez has established near complete dominance of the political landscape in his country and when, for whatever reason, such men begin to show even the slightest trace of vulnerability, issues of succession and stability inevitably arise. An unstable Venezuela would raise issues that would resonate far beyond the country’s borders.
It is, it seems, President Chávez’s concern that his illness could alter his image as a strong and inspirational leader – an image on which he has thrived, particularly inside Venezuela – that has caused him to maintain as much of a public profile as he can. The last thing he needs is to have his customarily high profile lowered by far fewer public appearances and the significant delegation of his customary duties to lesser officials. The Chávez ‘revolution’ has been fashioned tightly around Hugo Chávez. His physical presence and his high-octane personality are the very embodiment of his regime and if it appears that he is functioning at “half throttle,“ or less, the speculation about his hold on power will grow.
Mindful of the already intense and widespread curiosity that his illness has attracted, President Chávez has also announced that he intends to run for another six-year presidential term at Venezuela’s 2012 general elections though, at this stage, that might simply be a tactical move associated with reinforcing assurances of his durability. On the other hand his administration’s keenness, including his own vigorous efforts, to create the impression that he is “fine,” having only just undergone several rounds of physically and emotionally draining chemotherapy treatment, will be hard to sell either at home or abroad. Such assurances will have to be backed by hard evidence rather than mere pronouncements.
Last week’s report – subsequently denied – about him having been rushed to hospital in Caracas following a medical emergency which was followed by yet another of his now familiar ‘medical ‘bulletins,’ will probably provide even more reason for speculation that contrary to what is being propagated officially, President Chávez is still some distance from what one might describe as being ‘on the mend.’ So too will the postponement of the scheduled visit to Venezuela by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Then there are the reports that President Chávez has been carrying a significantly reduced work load, understandable, given what we know about the nature of his illness, but decidedly at odds with the official view that the worst of his medical problems are now behind him.
As one might expect in such a situation the international media, particularly the Western media, have trained their sights unerringly on the Venezuelan President’s illness, trotting out myriad scenarios that have to do with the nature of the cancer, his current medical condition, its implications for his hold on power and even his longevity.
During the era of the former Soviet Union and on account of the strict official secrecy that surrounded the state of health of Soviet presidents, the Western press mounted the strictest of media watches that took account of the slightest developments or even rumours that might be linked to the medical condition of the Soviet leader. Each seemingly unusual or irregular occurrence that might conceivably provide even the slightest indication of the state of a Soviet president’s health was given meaning. The same is probably likely to happen in Mr Chávez’s case as long as the nature and extent of his illness remain unclear. In such circumstances he can expect that everything that he says and does or does not say and do – as the case may be – will be interwoven into media speculation regarding the state of his health. His public appearances will be closely scrutinized for such signs as can be detected as to whether or not he might be on the mend; and bearing in mind his well-known reputation for a high work rate, frequent television appearances and the delivery of aggressive and energized public speeches, changes in his routine that might be linked to a slowing down may not be too difficult to detect.
Venezuela watchers will also be monitoring changes within both the civilian and military establishments with a view to seeking to determine whether these might have the makings of a succession plan or whether, perhaps, the President might be seeking to further tighten his grip on power.
The issue of succession has already surfaced and if Mr Chávez is not known to have fashioned any such formal arrangement sections of the media have already named ‘potential candidates‘ to succeed him, including his reportedly much-trusted Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Ramirez who is both the country’s Energy Minister and President of the state-run oil company PDVSA and Vice President Elias Jaua. President Chávez’s older brother, Adán, considered to be an ideological bulwark in the regime’s socialist experiment has also been named as a possible choice to succeed him if he is unable to carry on.
Considerations of succession, however, do not appear, even remotely, to be an issue inside the Chávez administration. Indeed, apart from the fact that it is not known that the Western media’s named likely successors to Chávez can match him, either in terms of popular appeal or leadership capabilities, Mr Chávez’s supporters do not appear to be looking beyond the man who has vowed to change the face of Venezuela’s social and political landscape. As one western writer has already conceded “Chavism without Chávez will not work.”