Earlier this week, a Twitter account attributed to Wikileaks Argentina broke the news in English and in Spanish: "NOW CONFIRMED! Argentinean Embassy Cable: Hugo Chávez died of heart attack yesterday in Cuba. 06/25/11 08:43AM 0438VZ/11".
That’s the kind of 140 character broadcast that’s guaranteed to get retweeted. The news shot through Twitter — but it hasn’t yet been taken up by the mainstream media. The Twitter account looked a little dodgy — so much so that WikiLeaks went to the trouble of making it clear that it had nothing to do with them. In the absence of any supporting evidence, the reports of the President of Venezuela’s demise may be greatly exaggerated.
The thing is, it’s hard to say for sure whether the 56-year-old Chávez is alive or dead. Why? Because Chávez has dropped off the media radar entirely in the last month. Since his election in 1999 Chávez has been a loquacious and highly visible ruler which has made his absence from Venezuelan local media all the more remarkable. Indeed, according to The Guardian, "Since taking power in 1999, the president has reportedly interrupted normal television programming 2135 times to address his nation." He has addressed the nation in detail about his health issues, including a long 2008 extemporisation on a nasty case of diarrhea. Chávez’s form as an oversharer makes his present reticence even stranger.
Last week Chávez’s brother Adan Chávez told state television that the President was recovering from an operation on a pelvic absess and would be returning home in the next week or so. Nothing to worry about, business as usual. Almost. The Wall Street Journal reports that excitable investors are speculating on Chávez health and the possibility that he may not be able to run in next year’s election — and pushing up bond prices.
According to Venezuelan state media, Chávez fell ill when he was in a meeting with Fidel Castro at the beginning of the month and remained in Cuba for emergency surgery on 10 June. He’s been convalescing there ever since — very quietly. This isn’t the first time that Chávez has been reported dead. It happened in 2005 but Chávez did not make his supporters wait quite so long for his triumphant return then.
It’s a perplexing situation and speculation has been rife that the leader’s condition is more serious than has been reported. Photos of Chávez with Fidel Castro that were over a week old were broadcast on Venezuelan state television yesterday, along with reassurances that the leader is doing OK. Otherwise, apart from some very sporadic tweeting, all has been silent. An editorial in El Nacional, a pro-Opposition Venezuelan newspaper, compares the silence around the hospitalisation of Chávez to the recent illness of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández. Details about her illness may have been broadcast regularly but the paper points to many precedents where the medical situation of leaders has been kept under wraps for security reasons.
At home in Caracas, government ministers and Chávez’s family are left to manage the fallout. The vice-president Elias Jaua reports that the President is keeping up with the business of state as he recuperates and that all official documents receive his signature.
Jaua sounded particularly confident in this Reuters report on Sunday:
"Vice President Elias Jaua said Chávez would return soon. ‘The national and international right-wing are going crazy, rubbing their hands together … even talking about the death of the president,’ he said in a speech, adding that Chávez’s rivals were exposing themselves as anti-democratic fascists. ‘They know they cannot win elections against our comandante,’ Jaua said."
In other words, if Chávez lives, the opposition has got no chance of winning office.
Chávez may not be popular with the metropolitan middle classes in Venezuela but he is wildly popular with poor and rural voters. Indigenous tribes have been conducting prayer ceremonies for Chávez’s health. He’s the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and a lynchpin of the network of socialist governments in Central America that so bother the United States. Like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Lula da Silva in Brazil his personal charisma has been critical to his success. Without Chávez, his party would certainly be vulnerable. On Monday AP reported that Adan Chávez raised the possible of armed struggle for his brother’s party to stay in power.
Opposition figures know how much depends on the presence of Chávez and are raising the stakes. Arguing that it’s unconstitutional for Chávez to govern from abroad, they demand that Elias Jaua take power in Chávez’s absence. Political science professor Steve Ellner told Ahram Online, "There is no second-in-command in the Chávez movement."
That may be the case but right now, there is no Chávez. Reuters maps out the possible scenarios ahead in this piece published on the Huffington Post. The options range from the unsurprising — elections, power struggles within the Socialists, poor government by a sick leader — to the downright conspiratorial: "One theory gaining currency in many circles is that the government is deliberately keeping quiet, not to hide a horrible illness, but to fan speculation to such a point that it will enhance the sense of triumph when Chávez does return."
5 July is Venezuela’s Independence Day. Big celebrations are planned this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the nation’s independence from Spain. Chávez may merely be recuperating quietly. He may be seriously ill. He may be dead. He may be taking a break from life as a demagogue. Who knows? Whatever ails Hugo Chávez now, unless he returns soon to Venezuela, the nation he has led with such vigor for the last 12 years may seriously have to contemplate the prospect of a new leader.
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