Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where on earth did Hugo, Chávez?

Venezuelans ponder the fate of absent leader

  • Print

CARACAS, Venezuela -- He's getting better. He's getting worse. He's already dead. The whole thing is a conspiracy and he was never sick in the first place.

The obsessive, circular conversations about President Hugo Chávez's health dominate family dinners, plaza chit-chats and social media sites in this country on edge since its larger-than-life leader went to Cuba for emergency cancer surgery more than two weeks ago. The man whose booming voice once dominated the airwaves for hours at a time has not been seen or heard from since.

His lieutenants have consistently assured Venezuelans over the last week Chávez is slowly on the mend and will be back at the helm of the country he has dominated for 14 years. But when will he be back? Will he be well enough to govern? What type of cancer does he have? Is it terminal? If so, how long does he have to live?

Government officials have not answered any of those questions, leaving Venezuelans to their own speculations. The wildest conspiracy theories run the gamut, from those who say there is no proof Chávez is even still alive to those who believe his illness is a made-up play for sympathy.

"Everything has been a mystery. Everyone believes what they want about the status of his health," said Ismael Garca, a leftist lawmaker who belonged to the Chávez movement until a falling-out a few years ago.

Vice-President Nicolás Maduro read out a New Year's message from Chávez to Venezuelan troops on Friday, but for the fourth day in a row offered no updates on the president's health. Maduro had announced Monday night Chávez was walking and doing some exercises.

The uncertainty comes with a sense of urgency because Chávez is scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10. The government and opposition disagree on what should happen if Chávez can't show up, raising the threat of a destabilizing legal fight. Beyond that, nobody knows if Chávez's deputies, who have long worked under his formidable shadow, can hold the country together if he dies.

Like everything else in this fiercely divided country, what people believe usually depends on where their political loyalty lies. Chávez opponents are mostly convinced the president has terminal cancer, has known it for a long time and should not have sought re-election in October. His most fervent supporters refuse to believe "El Comandante" will die.

"Chávez is going to live on. He is a very important man. He has transformed the world with his ideology," said Victor Coba, a 48-year-old construction worker standing outside a Caracas church as government officials held a mass to pray for the leader. Coba scurried off to a street corner where officials were handing out a book of photographs of Chávez's recent presidential campaign. The comandante's grinning face looked out from the cover, alongside the slogan "Chávez, the heart of my country."

The same image looms from billboards erected all over Caracas, from freeway medians to the low-income apartment towers being built with Venezuelan oil wealth. Such services for the poor have helped Chávez maintain a core of followers despite high inflation, rampant gun violence, trash-strewn cities and other problems he has failed to fix.

For many, the attachment to Chávez borders on religious reverence. His supporters wish each other "Feliz Chávidad" rather than "Feliz Navidad," or Merry Christmas. Government officials have started talking about Chávez like an omnipresent deity.

"Chávez is this cable car. Chávez is this great mission. The children are Chávez. The women are Chávez. The men are Chávez. We are all Chávez," Maduro said recently while inaugurating a cable car to bring people down from one of the vast slums that creep up Caracas' hillsides. "Comandante, take care of yourself, get better and we will be waiting for you here."

Crowds of red-clad supporters roar their approval each time Maduro reassures them. But on the streets, confusion reigns.

"People say he's going to get better," said Alibexi Birriel, an office manager eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.

Her husband, Richard Hernandez, shook his head. "No. Most people say Chávez is going to die and that Nicolás Maduro is going to take power."

Birriel paused, chiming in, "Well, some think this whole thing is theatre and that there's nothing wrong with him."

Amid the raging rumours, Chávez's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chávez, sent out a Twitter message from Havana last week pleading for it all to stop.

"Respect for my family and especially respect for my people. Enough lies! We are with papa. ALIVE, fighting and recovering. WITH GOD," she wrote.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 A25

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Keri Latimer looks for beauty in the dark and the spaces between the notes

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(Standup photo)- Humming Around- A female ruby -throated hummingbird fly's through the bee bomb  flowers Friday at the Assiniboine Park English Garden- Nectar from flowers are their main source of food. Hummingbirds wings can beat as fast as 75x times second. Better get a glimpse of them soon the birds fly far south for the winter - from Mexico to South America- JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- Sept 10, 2009
  • PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060710 The full moon rises above the prairie south of Winnipeg Monday evening.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should political leaders be highly visible on the frontlines of flood fights and other natural disasters?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google