Hugo Chávez’s Absence Deepens Venezuela’s Sense of Crisis

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Miguel Gutierrez / ZUMA PRESS

A painting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez during a march in Caracas on Feb. 4, 2013

When Venezuelan authorities announced a long-overdue devaluation of their currency last week, ministers insisted that the command had come directly from President Hugo Chávez. “We have taken this as a presidential order,” insisted Finance Minister Jorge Giordani. “The President is commanding and taking decisions,” added Elías Jaua, the newly appointed Foreign Minister. According to Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, Chávez is even examining images beamed back from the country’s flagship Miranda satellite.

It seems difficult to believe Chávez continues to govern, having not been seen nor heard from since early December when he went through a six-hour operation in Havana. It was the fourth such treatment in a year and a half. Since the operation, no photos, audio or video recordings have been made public of the usually garrulous leader. But, despite his absence, Chávez has still cast a long shadow. His party won regional elections in a landslide in December; the sheer power of his celebrity led to tens of thousands of red-clad supporters flooding the streets for a Jan. 10 inauguration where he was nowhere in sight. The ailing 58-year-old is becoming a living martyr.

But the glow of his aura can’t obscure the country’s real problems, which include one of the highest murder rates in the world. More than 21,000 were killed in Venezuela in 2012; a further 500 were killed just in the country’s prisons. Venezuela suffered its worst prison riot in nearly two decades last month. “We want Chávez to come here to give us news,” says Josefina Ramírez, 36, waiting outside the gates of a prison in Uribana, near the city of Barquisimeto, for news of her husband who was inside. Around 60 inmates were killed in a standoff with authorities. “We’re suffering here, and the government is saying nothing.”

(MORE: With Hugo Chávez Hospitalized, Venezuela Frets About the Future)

The Venezuelan government is good at saying nothing. Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas’ pronouncements on El Comandante’s health have been vague and cryptic, sometimes even contradicting those of other ministers privileged enough to have traveled to Havana to visit their President. The confusion has bred comedy. El Chigüire Bipolar (The Bipolar Capybara) — the country’s answer to the Onion — parodied Vice President Nicolás Maduro with Orwellian language: “The President is stable, some days less stable, some days more stable and occasionally is in a state of excessive stability.”

The information vacuum on Chávez’s health has been filled with rumors, fueled by those opposed to the President’s left-wing rule. Across the Atlantic, the Spanish media have led the braying pack, with El País publishing a false photograph of an intubated Chávez and the daily newspaper ABC revealing that Chávez had permanently lost his voice and would not be returning to govern Venezuela. “This so-called information from ABC is about as true as the fake photo in El País,” said Villegas.

Venezuela’s opposition, long internally conflicted and demoralized since losing a presidential election in October and legislative ones in December, appears to be falling apart as its less-measured members scream and shout that by not appearing at his own inauguration, Chávez is no longer the President. “The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana,” said opposition figure Leopoldo López. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition’s leader who lost to Chávez in the recent presidential election, has remained relatively quiet though has continued to insist that Chávez should offer some proof of life. “If the President of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to show himself, to talk to Venezuela,” he said in January. (Proof of life has been offered by the government in the form of a signature, though this has been widely discounted as a fake.)

(MORE: Venezuelan Video Scandal Fizzles: Can Capriles Still Unseat Chávez?)

Both camps, in fact, look to be eyeing a forthcoming election. Should Chávez be declared unable to return to the presidency, the country’s National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello would take power for 30 days before elections take place. Any election would likely pit Maduro against Capriles. Maduro, surfing a wave of Chávez sympathy would undoubtedly win, says Luis Vicente León, a Caracas pollster who correctly predicted the outcome of October’s election. While Cabello and Maduro may not see eye to eye, they have been forced to unite for the greater good of their Chavista bloc. “In order to maintain power, they have to be unified,” says Vicente León. “Though Cabello could be a challenge for Maduro in the long term.”

Cabello has echoed Chávez’s vehement rhetoric against the opposition, likening Capriles to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar; Capriles in turn compared Cabello to prohibition-era Chicago gangster Al Capone. “Make no mistake,” the opposition leader said as he accused the government of participating in a smear campaign, “they want to come for me.” Vicente León, the pollster, can see where Capriles is coming from: “They are attacking the opposition with corruption [charges] because they need to keep attention off Chávez’s absence.” Graft is embedded in Venezuela’s history, from dictatorship in the 1950s, through the second half of the 20th century in which two notoriously kleptocratic, elitist parties juggled power between themselves, right up to allegations today that top Chávez officials are siphoning money from the country’s huge oil reserves.

The heated atmospherics of the moment have, at times, led to political farce. While Venezuelan governance is often sartorially informal — Chávez often wears a tracksuit, in the style of his mentor Fidel Castro — it took a surreal turn at the National Assembly earlier this month when legislators from both the opposition and government wore baseball caps in the colors of the Venezuelan flag as they argued over the commandeering of a national symbol. “This cap belongs to the revolution,” said belligerent former army lieutenant Cabello. The opposition, he said, was in love with another flag — one “with 51 stars, the gringo [U.S.] flag.”

A few days later, Venezuelan television and media were flooded with images of Chávez wearing the cap. While leaders on both sides can flaunt nationalist symbols and launch vacuous bromides, it remains to be seen whether chavismo can really survive without Chávez. “We shall wait,” says Carlos Rivero, a 41-year-old engineer based in Caracas. “In Venezuela, life is on hold.”

MORE: How Did a Weakened Chávez Retain Venezuela’s Presidency?

40 comments
brolidolli
brolidolli

@soundscolours EVERYTHING IS DANDY HERE MATE. All good with the pictures and the three tweets. We dont need anything else. ¿What crisis? =(

Sam_Capois1
Sam_Capois1

@TIME what does that mean for the future of Venezuela?

Lady_Deelicious
Lady_Deelicious

@UbeMumu he still is, heard his throat is damaged and he cant talk

AngryHatter
AngryHatter

@TIME @TIMEWorld Weekend at Bernie's. He's been dead for weeks.

afjrb
afjrb

“@TIME: Hugo Chavez's absence deepens Venezuela's sense of crisis | http://t.co/OxgilZvv (via @TIMEWorld)” // SENSE of crisis? #getreal

peterhatlem
peterhatlem

@TIME @TIMEWorld the cleares sign of a dictatorship is when a country feels that his fate depends on their leader

deipanhonha
deipanhonha

@TIME @TIMEWorld In Italy Mario Monti's presence deepens our sense of crisis. #Monti #megliomortichemonti

Licmig57
Licmig57

@SaloumehZ The solution is in the constitution. But a totalitarian government does not respect the law.

jemb90
jemb90

@ChiguireBipolar Buenaaa!

cerivero
cerivero

Puro chiguire y a @cerivero no le tiran nada. Un honor estar en @time al lado del @chiguirebipolar

MissKittyBottom
MissKittyBottom

@ChiguireBipolar “the bipolar capybara”! Así te quedaste! XD

cesarelicc
cesarelicc

@ChiguireBipolar Braaaavo! "Bipolar Capybara"... q nivel

sofiacv20
sofiacv20

@ChiguireBipolar @TIME jajaja te pasas de acido chigui !No olvides que tu buen desempeño se debe al @chiguipasante dale un dia libre vale!

yael82
yael82

@ChiguireBipolar @TIME cuando uno lo ve desde afuera es como una película de humor negro

anavisgu
anavisgu

@ChiguireBipolar @time Chigüiiiiiiii oh my godddd!!! Eres lo máximo! Con semejante mention quién se va a preocupar d mandar corazoncitos?

Victorjp750
Victorjp750

@ChiguireBipolar y que paso con la pisciana pues ?

eagh294
eagh294

@ChiguireBipolar Woww! Now you're an international capybara! Congrats!!

nicoll_31
nicoll_31

@ChiguireBipolar @TIME jajajajja eres demasiado bueno jajajja

ANAIROx
ANAIROx

@ChiguireBipolar que BRUUUTAAAAALLLL chiwi!!!! Sigue asi! Feliz dia de 'meCitaronEnTime'

Rancilyo
Rancilyo

@oswaldograziani @ChiguireBipolar The Bipolar Capybara? creo que ya tenemos Domingüire jajajaja. Que éxitazo chico.

Juan_Ravell
Juan_Ravell

@joseandresms @ChiguireBipolar @eliocasale @oswaldograziani @TIMEWorld Gracias por avisar!

lord_loopen
lord_loopen

@TIME @TIMEWorld That's what happens to communist leaders.

aps1957
aps1957

@mgcolmenares @TIME @TIMEWorld Twice

soundscolours
soundscolours

@brolidolli Ha, I think you should write for TIME, give them an extra perspective!

PepsiGro
PepsiGro

@LarsAarset ja noen av de finnes der

SaloumehZ
SaloumehZ

@licmig57 You are correct on both counts.

RedScareBot
RedScareBot

Such a commie RT @lord_loopen: @TIME @TIMEWorld That's what happens to communist leaders.

Licmig57
Licmig57

@SaloumehZ The absence of Chavez also served to deepen this crisis. And still we have not hit bottom...! http://t.co/MUHjWVfc

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

@RedScareBot Sí, ¡Oh sí! Eso es lo que ocurre con los líderes comunistas.