Dead or alive? What is the truth about Hugo Chavez?
With the world running out of eccentric leaders Hugo Chavez had or has been one of the last. If I am not sure what tense to write the last sentence in it’s because like much of the country I can’t be entirely sure whether Chavez is even alive.
The paratrooper turned president with the baritone bombast has always lived for the limelight. Even when he was being medivaced to Cuba in recent years for another bout of chemo there would be a reassuring picture of him, bald but smiling. For the last month while he has been closeted away in a Havana hospital there has been nothing.
Not a picture. Not a squeak. Just unconvincing reassurances from the people who rely on Chavez for their future that he is not dead, recovering, through the worst and very much hoping to return to Caracas as soon as his health permits him to retake the reigns of power.
In the United States, where a president’s health is a matter for the public record, we would have had endless briefings from medics in white suits with power point presentations of the tumour’s progress. In Venezuela we don’t even know for sure what kind of cancer the president is suffering from.
So Chavez won’t be coming back home to attend his own inauguration on Thursday. The star guest is absent at his own party and the government has delayed his swearing-in until some undisclosed point in the future, a highly controversial decision that has just been sanctioned by the Chavez-appointed supreme court.
Venezuela thus finds itself in a very strange position. The images of El Comandante are ubiquitous. His chubby face beams out from almost every wall, flutters on giant flags above building sites, adorns T shirts, and can be seen ad nauseam on old TV clips of Chavez, speaking, singing, preaching, hugging, kissing, flirting, praying and eating.
On TV Chavez is alive with a kind of joie de vivre which is a rare event amongst the most populist strongmen. Chavez loves/loved being alive. And whatever you think of his politics there is something infectious about his exuberance. I once interviewed him in Havana when the subject was the health of another president, his best friend Fidel Castro.
“Was Fidel still alive?” I asked him. Chavez looked at me with sweaty indignation and then let loose the hounds of rhetoric. “Alive? AALIIIVE?” he bellowed. “Fidel is the air we breathe, the grass we are standing on, the birds, the trees, the very earth. Fidel is everywhere.”
He was right, of course. Fidel was indeed alive. Even in his dotage he continues to define Cuba and everyone who lives on that island. Clearly Chavez hopes that some of that Castro immortality will rub off on him in a Havana hospital. While we wait to find out, Venezuela, where people love and loathe the president in equal measure, is in limbo, gaping at a power vacuum and fearful of the future.
In recent months the black market rate for the US dollar has soared. The country is bitterly divided. The opposition is keeping a low profile for now, afraid of provoking the authorities and their thugs with any demonstrations and hoping discreetly that the Grim Reaper will come to its help.
But even if Chavez were to die and be declared dead beyond reasonable doubt he will continue to enthrall this county for years to come.
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