Chavez’s Cancer Mystery: What if Venezuela’s President Doesn’t Run for Re-Election?

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Leo Ramirez / AFP / Getty Images

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is greeted by supporters on his way to the airport to travel to Cuba, in Caracas on Feb. 24, 2012.

Lent, the pre-Easter season that started last week, is traditionally a time when Christians ponder their mortality – and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had a lot of it to contemplate before he left Caracas for Havana to undergo more cancer surgery. The firebrand socialist, after months of insisting he was cancer free, disclosed that doctors had found a new lesion in the same pelvic area where they removed a tumor last June. The latest growth is “most likely malignant,” Chávez conceded – aggressively so, medical experts are suggesting – leaving him “preparing to face the worst.” But, trying to buoy supporters who’d come out en masse to see him off last Friday, Feb. 24, he told them he’d recently had a vision of Jesus Christ saying, “Chávez, rise up, it’s not time to die, it’s time to live.”

Whether or not Chávez survives this passion play – he still says he’s confident he’ll beat it with new rounds of chemotherapy – his party has little choice now but to rise up, man up, lay down its denial and start making some difficult decisions, not only for the good of Venezuela, the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation, but for the health of Chávez. The 57-year-old President, who has ruled for 13 years with bullying energy, admits now that he’ll have to slow down quite a bit – meaning it’s highly questionable that he can pursue a re-election bid and the seven months of campaigning left before the Oct. 7 presidential vote. If he can’t, Venezuela has a tense, let’s hope not violent, year ahead of it as his United Socialist Party (PSUV) figures out how to engage the first viable opposition candidate – 39-year-old Henrique Capriles – that Chávez’s radical revolution has ever faced.

(READ: “In Venezuela, Finally a Credible Opposition Candidate to Face Hugo Chávez?”)

Here’s the route the PSUV should take: select a candidate to replace Chávez. Los Chavistas could be doing both themselves and Venezuelan democracy a favor in the process, because it would show the world they’re more than the one-man caudillo act their critics call them. The Chávez-led Bolivarian Revolution has indeed reduced inexcusably high poverty levels in Venezuela and helped enfranchise the barrios. But it has concentrated inordinate power in the hands of el comandante, whose increasing expropriations of businesses and properties have all but choked off foreign investment in Venezuela – and whose report card includes the world’s highest inflation rate and South America’s highest murder rate, curious alliances with global pariahs like Iran and Syria and a population so politically polarized it makes even the U.S. feel harmonious.

That’s usually what happens when a country is governed less by a political party than by a personality cult. Five years ago, after Chávez lost a referendum that would have further increased his powers, Bart Jones and Alberto Barrera, the authors of two excellent Chávez biographies, both warned it was time for Chavistas to start looking beyond the President. The PSUV would have to “start cultivating other leaders” if it wanted to avoid decline, Jones told me, while Barrera lamented that “Chavistas have unfortunately reached that ideological point where they can’t even imagine any other President.”

No humane person would ever wish cancer on anyone, and the best outcome of all this is of course that Chávez recovers. But if his condition is as grave as it looks, it at least affords his followers the opportunity to become a party that can stand on more legs than just his. When a President’s top aides are tweeting angry denials of media reports that his cancer has reappeared – only to have the President that same day confirm the reports – it doesn’t exactly raise confidence in the competence and coherence of the Venezuelan government. As a result, when Chávez is off the operating table in Havana and well enough to talk to them, those aides may need to convince him that someone else – be it his older brother Adán or the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello – should carry the PSUV banner in October.

But neither Adán nor Cabello nor any other PSUV figure has anywhere near Chávez’s charisma or connection to el pueblo. So here’s the route Chávez and the PSUV most likely will take: stick with Chávez, no matter how ill he is, as the party’s best chance to hold on to another six years in power. If Chávez can get past the Oct. 7 finish line with a victory, he and the Chavistas can then figure out what to do from there. As for campaigning, one former high-ranking Chávez government official I spoke with recently said the PSUV was certain that with the vast state-run media apparatus and oil revenues the party has at its disposal, it can still defeat Capriles with an electronic campaign – having Chávez address rallies from Maracaibo to Maturín via satellite, for example, from inside the Miraflores presidential palace.

Then again, that probably won’t be effective against an energetic and experienced rival whose platform emphasizes reaching out to Chávez’s poor and working-class base. Which means another route Chávez and the PSUV could, but shouldn’t, take if he is incapacitated: declare some sort of national state of emergency and postpone if not cancel the October election.

That of course would be an assault on the democratic process Chávez insists his revolution adheres to – he has, in fact, been democratically elected three times before this – but unfortunately he and his government just might be capable of trying it. That’s because, per Barrera, Chávez and so many Chavistas believe that he is the only man not only suited but permitted to lead not only the party but the country. Chávez’s brother has even suggested that Chavistas may have to take up arms if their revolution’s rule is threatened, while his Defense Minister has even suggested that the military might not recognize an opposition presidential victory next fall.

Much depends on how serious Chávez’s new cancerous growth actually is. Up to now, he has refused to specify what kind of cancer he’s battling, but sooner or later he and his government will have to start handling this crisis more openly: Venezuela isn’t North Korea. As Chávez made clear last week, he and Christians like him have begun a season of facing mortality – be it physical or political.

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