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Silence of Hugo Chávez Fuels Speculation and Rumors

There have been many articles on the medical condition of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. However, beyond reporting that he was hospitalized soon after his arrival in Cuba on June 8 (allegedly for surgical treatment of a pelvic abscess), is still there, and has  been uncharacteristically uncommunicative, they have been based mostly on rumors and the speculation they produce. Miami, Florida, has a significant Venezuelan expat community and there have been lively discussions there about Chávez’s condition and what his death would mean. Although they have access to more information than most folks in Venezuela, they seem to be up in the air as well. Chávez may have died in Cuba on the morning of June 25. According to a tweet from WikiLeaks Argentina, “BREAKING NEWS! The president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez died in Cuba this morning. 06/25/2011 08:43AM.” The WikiLeaks report has been received with great skepticism, was discounted in a Business Insider article, and has not generally been picked up by the media, probably for good reasons. There was an article on June 27 (in Spanish) in Periodista Latino — apparently published in Spain principally for Latin American expats and said to be based on reports by an anonymous reporter in Havana — claiming that Chávez has been in a coma for five days due to septicemia and that he is in one of Fidel Castro’s houses under tight security lest there be leaks of information such as might happen were he in the hospital. It is said that European physicians and lots of medical equipment are there to care for him. True? It makes at least as much sense as other claims. The fact is that nobody in a position to make credible, factual, and substantive statements is willing or otherwise able to do so. 

Perhaps the most enlightening official statement was reported in the Telegraph, via a reporter in Brazil, that

While other Venezuelan ministers have attempted to dampen speculation by insisting Mr Chavez is recovering well, comments by Nicholas Maduro, the foreign minister, on Friday suggested that the situation may be serious.

“The battle that President Chavez is waging for his health must be everyone’s battle: the battle for life, for the immediate future of our fatherland,” he said. (emphasis added)

Daniel Duquenal (a pseudonym), a highly perceptive Venezuelan blogger who posts in both English and Spanish, on June 23 provided his interpretation of what another respected Venezuelan blogger, Gustavo Coronel, had written in Spanish crediting rumors that Chávez has terminal prostate cancer. According to Daniel’s interpretation of what Gustavo Coronel had written, Chávez had been operated on in Venezuela and problems were found there requiring advanced body scans, not available in Venezuela unless he went to one of the very few private clinics capable of providing them.  That would have been a politically unacceptable confession that Chávez’s socialist clinics are incapable of meeting important needs such as his. He flew to Brazil and Ecuador for show and developed a post-operative infection and then a fever while in Cuba, “a convenient excuse to justify Chavez stay while the real stuff was being done, namely the body scans.”

Since his arrival in Cuba, Chávez has had very few publicly disclosed contacts with Venezuela. His vice president, Elias Jaua, a non-charismatic guy lacking Chávez’s “charm” and popular appeal, has been dealing with day-to-day domestic affairs. Things went very badly for Venezuela when Chávez was there and in charge, and for his vice president to make improvements seems unlikely; in the unlikely event that he could he probably wouldn’t, because that could place him even closer to the center of a Chavista power struggle, a dangerous place to be. Nor, at least until Chávez is indisputably dead, might he want to be seen as upstaging him.

The conspiracy theories and absence of reliable sources of non-speculative information speak loudly about political and other conditions in Venezuela. It’s possible that Chávez could be dead for a month or more and the pretense that he remains alive and is recovering would persist. Even an official announcement of this death and the public display of a corpse (not necessarily his) could be viewed with skepticism and be seen as the prelude to his miraculous Lazarus-like restoration to life. There are many who would credit such an occurrence; Chávez is already considered by some to be the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar and his resurrection would not be a giant leap of faith. Education is very poor in Venezuela. Although the literacy rate is about ninety-three percent, that means little because “literacy” has different meanings and because reading with comprehension is by no means the same as reading without comprehension. As noted in the CIA Factbook entry on Venezuela, where the literacy rate is reported,

There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy. Unless otherwise specified, all rates are based on the most common definition — the ability to read and write at a specified age. Detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the Factbook.

A very well educated Venezuelan friend told me a decade ago that schools in Venezuela had long been designed to discourage critical thinking among the masses, making “literacy” meaningless for evaluating popular perceptions. It seems likely that critical reading and thinking are more discouraged now than then.

The most important questions now, if Chávez is dead or dies soon, are what will happen with Venezuela domestically and what strings its government will be able to pull internationally. Even under Chávez, its power had been in decline internationally and some countries — including even Cuba — have begun to adopt modestly more capitalist economic strategies as Venezuela has become increasingly Communist.

Will the Venezuelan opposition — very divided, with little leadership, charismatic or otherwise, and many in jail on apparently trumped up charges — manage to assume power, or will it fall to a Chavista? Chávez has done a great job of making sure that nobody, Chavista or not, would be in a position to succeed to his office or to his power. He has used both rewards and punishments to that end. That and his popular appeal have been the only specialties of governance at which he has succeeded. He knows about coups, tried one himself, and went to jail rather than into the Presidential Palace. When he eventually became the president, he was briefly ousted by a coup, from which he recovered.

Daniel’s June 23 post linked above as to the impact of the death of Chávez states,

Do I believe it? Not yet but it is awfully tempting. However let me make something perfectly clear: THIS WOULD BE POSSIBLY THE VERY WORST CASE SCENARIO FOR VENEZUELA.

With such an end for Chavez, he will become a hero of sorts, a mythical figure and chavismo will last for decades more. Exactly as it happened in Argentina when after his return Peron died just before things started getting worse and as such peronism could survive Isabelita, Lopez Rega, Videla, the Falklands, etc, etc… as it was, of course, not of Peron’s making. That Peron was at the source of all of this did not matter, he was not alive during these crisis. If Cristina is at it today it is becasue Peron died conveniently 4 decades ago.

To get a chance to be a renewed country Venezuela needs to oust Chavez in such a way that he can go to trial, alive and well to understand the charges, and collapse in nerves on the accused stand.

At any rate, there you have your conspiracy theory du jour, one that could lead us straight into a lot of conflict and economic crisis. NOT that Chavez is indispensable, he is not, but the way he and the Cubans have handled the situation they are, willingly or not, setting the stage for a lot of trouble that could have been avoided if from the start they woudl [sic] have fessed up and name Jaua interim president for, say, three months.

Perceptions may have changed a bit. In an article published on June 26 in TroyMedia, a Canadian paper, Daniel summarizes some of Venezuela’s problems and observes that Chávez is losing power:

The regime promises that Chavez will be back for the bicentennial of July 5th. As there is also a major summit in Margarita Island the following day, Chavez can no longer postpone his public return. If he does, he will need to account for his absence.

But neither option will do him any good at this point. The regime is imploding, which will result either in its demise or a new radicalization and internal purges as the only way to hold to power. As the French say we might be entering a fin de règne … or worse.

With the return of a healthy Chávez, things are very likely to continue to get worse. A loss of Chávez’s power may be a good thing and, with no successor likely to have his charismatic appeal, life in Venezuela might get better, slowly. Chávez has filled to overflowing a Venezuelan Augean stable and whoever takes over will have a Herculean task should he try to muck it out. If a new el Presidente tries but fails, the country will continue its descent down and through the spiral drain.

Armed revolution if Chávez does not return to power may also be possible. It was observed here that

Given the uncertainty and rumors about President Hugo Chavez’ health, today’s warning from the President’s brother Adan Chavez is quite ominous. In a speech in Barinas State, Adan Chavez said:

“The revolution was born in the Bicentennial era and it made it through elections and we want it to continue that way, following a peaceful path that allows us to build Bolivarian socialism, but aware of the dangers that beset us and that the enemy does not rest, we can not forget as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of struggle. “

He then proceeded to quote Che Guevara:

“It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle.” (emphasis in original)

What would a future with a diminished or dead Chávez mean for the rest of Latin America and for the United States? Cuba, of which Venezuela under Chávez has become a de facto colony, would probably be the nation hardest hit were armed revolution or anarchy to break out in Venezuela. Cuba depends on cheap or substantially free Venezuelan oil and, despite grossly inefficient management coupled with deteriorating oil infrastructure, Venezuela has been able to produce enough to supply Cuba as well as the United States, which actually pays for it. Electricity is needed for oil production and Venezuela’s generating capacity and electrical grid are in terrible shape and getting worse; extended blackouts are a common occurrence. A Communist ideologue from Cuba has been in charge of it even though he knows very little about generating electricity. Here is a cartoon from last year that pretty much says it all.

See, he is an expert on electricity.

Cuba also relies on Venezuela to support Cuban trained physicians, regardless of their medical skills, as well as many others. There are many Cuban military “advisers” with substantial power over the military, resented by some in the military.

If Cuba’s Venezuelan colony ceases to be willing or able to assist Cuba, Cuba will be up the creek. Where will she turn? China? Maybe, if there’s something in it for China — perhaps a military base very close to the United States. Russia, Iran? Ditto. Indeed, probably any country capable of supporting her, willing to do so, and to which she can provide something of value. It seems unlikely that the United States would currently be willing to bail out Cuba.

How about the United States replacing Cuba as the colonial master of Venezuela? Venezuela would impose a horrendous financial drain as a de facto colony and beyond keeping her from the clutches of our enemies — possibly an important consideration if it could be done — we would gain little more than South Korea would gain by taking over and assuming responsibility for North Korea. This would likely be the case even though the United States could use Venezuelan petroleum resources and even though South Korea could use North Korean mineral resources. I have substantial doubts that it could be done, due to the disdain in which Chavistas hold the United States and their need to retain power. How would President Obama try to accomplish it? Dithering wouldn’t work. I find it very difficult to imagine that he would even try to do it in the best interests of the United States.

The United States was not always held in disdain in Venezuela. When we were there, we found the people generally quite pleasant and helpful. My wife and I were in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela (a major but impoverished port city), at the time of the September 11, 2001 Islamic attack. My wife, fluent in Spanish, had got to know the port captain there and was helping some other gringos, who had recently arrived on their sailboats, through customs, immigration, and the port captain’s office. They had finished in the port captain’s office and left when he ran after her, excitedly urging her to return quickly. An aircraft impacting on the World Trade Center had just been on local television. He was visibly shaken. During the next several days, we were stopped by many Venezuelans on the street to commiserate about the dastardly nature of the attack. Would something similar occur now, with Chávez’s influence having metastasized throughout the country? I rather doubt it.

If it becomes clear that Chávez is now dead or if he soon dies many will try to make stabs at predicting the consequences. I may be among them as things settle down and there are more actual facts to consider.

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