Venezuela’s Future: Whose Health Is Worse—Hugo Chávez’s or the Opposition’s?

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Jorge Silva / REUTERS

People hold candles during a praying ceremony for the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas Feb. 22, 2013.

President Hugo Chávez is reportedly holed up on the ninth floor of Caracas’ Dr Carlos Arvelo military hospital, where a giant poster of his face beams down from its manila-colored walls.  But the portrait belies the deep uncertainties surrounding Chávez’s future. His homecoming last Monday, after a two-month convalescence in Cuba, was not filled with the histrionics and grand oratory Venezuelans are used to from El Comandante. Instead, he has not been seen nor heard from since his arrival and only one set of photos of him has been released from his Havana, hospital bed since a fourth cancer operation on Dec. 11. This is in stark contrast to the garrulous leader’s previous returns.

In July 2011, after three weeks away following the first of his cancer surgeries, Chávez  stood on the balcony of his Miraflores presidential palace, sporting his cherry red beret and olive green military uniform. He trumpeted: “It’s a miracle I am here, considering how I was” and lapped up screams and applause from supporters below for a full five minutes. He went on to talk of his “long march” to 2021 (the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s final defeat of the Spanish). At an Easter mass last year, the 58-year-old president called on Christ. “Jesus, give me your crown. Give me your cross and your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life because I have more to do for this country and these people. Do not take me yet.” That call may be even more profound now as 2021 seems a long way off for the perhaps terminally ill Chávez.

(MORE: Hugo Chávez’s absence deepens Venezuela’s sense of crisis.)

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition has failed to capitalize on rumors of Chávez’s dire state and appears, instead, to be falling apart. A plaza in Caracas’ shopping district of Chacao has played host to opposition protests in recent weeks. Embittered activists here say the country lacks governance and are angered by the recent drastic devaluation of the local currency, despite economists on both sides having called for it. Their most self-destructive talking point, however, has been a demand for a new leader. Henrique Capriles Radonski — the man who, while failing to beat Chávez in October’s presidential election, succeeded in uniting a traditionally fractured opposition for the first time — is not being loud enough in his criticism, they say. “Capriles, Capriles, where is Capriles?” some shouted at the most recent protest.

The state governor has always been well aware that unity among the anti-Chávez camp was essential if any progress was to be made. “If we don’t unify,” Capriles told TIME a year ago, just before he won opposition primaries, “then it’s game over.” The state governor has called for the extremes of the opposition to calm down, well aware that their screaming and shouting will alienate former or disgruntled Chávez-voters in any forthcoming election.

Chávez remains the government’s point man. His ministers at least appear in lockstep behind one leader, Chávez’s anointed heir and the country’s Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Whether Chávez comes back to govern, hands over power through an admission that he cannot do so or even passes away, his Bolivarian Revolution is likely to endure. An analysis of Maduro’s speeches in the wake of his boss’s inauguration on Jan. 10—where Chávez was a no-show—by Venezuela’s El Nacional newspaper, shows that he’s clinging to pillars of Chavismo: the most common words he uses are “Chávez,” “el pueblo (the people) and “Comandante.” Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, a belligerent former army lieutenant who heads the country’s National Assembly, stand in front of images of Chávez when making their pronouncements, invoking their leader as a symbol of unity despite their own noted differences. The same cannot be said of the opposition. Indeed, Cabello picked up on the infighting in January: “They’re beating each other up,” he said with glee.

(MORE: Maduro—a loyal lieutenant.)

There are three scenarios for what could follow. “Is Chávez here to die? Is Chávez here to support Maduro for a new election? Is Chávez here to return to power?” asked Caracas-pollster Luis Vicente León. León says this moment in time “couldn’t be more difficult” for the opposition. “There are many parties against the idea of repeating Capriles’ candidacy … but the possibilities for the other candidates tend to zero.” The Constitution stipulates that should Chávez not be able to govern again, through death or his own admission, elections must be called within 30 days.

These would pit Maduro against the chosen candidate, still likely to be Capriles — though not if opposition figure Diego Arria has his way. Arria — a minister in the unpopular government of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez against whom Chávez launched a coup in 1992 — is calling for the opposition to bring in a much broader range of voices—“people from outside Caracas, outside the political field,” he said. Capriles, he said, was a “means to an end,” and votes cast for him in the presidential election were “to get rid of the Chávez regime.” At a protest at the Chacao Square, opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma also called for a new opposition candidate. Leopoldo López, Capriles’ running mate in October, remained diplomatic on the leadership. “We’ve got to come to an agreement. There are always distinct positions,” he said. “The government in 2012 isn’t the same as that in 2013 and our candidate in 2013 won’t necessarily be the same as that in 2012.” Capriles has refused to answer questions on the subject. The facade of unity is very clearly cracked.

(MORE: Candidate Capriles—can he win?)

“This fragmentation is dangerous,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at Caracas’ Central University of Venezuela. The opposition won’t have too long for infighting though if, as analysts predict, elections are called soon. “Capriles has got to be the one or they are going to be divided and out of the game,” said León. Alberto Ramos, an analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York, does not expect Chavismo to die with Chávez. “Chavismo will probably last generations,” he said. “Chávez’s emotional connection with the people is unique; there is no one else that comes close. Chavismo as an idea, as a political movement, will survive.” Even when the source of that idea remains out of view, hidden behind the aura of his power.