02.20.13

Is Hugo Chávez Really Back in Venezuela?

The ailing leader reportedly returned to Caracas from Cuba on Monday, but his plane landed before dawn, with no TV coverage, and the public has not seen or heard from him—prompting some opponents to challenge him to step up, and others to spin conspiracy theories.

Leave it to Hugo Chávez to keep his compatriots guessing. For nearly 14 years, the Venezuelan president has kept this nation of 29 million on its toes, tearing across the country, staging marathon impromptu speeches, or descending unannounced, deus ex machina, from a helicopter into dazed crowds.

Since he took office in 1999, barely a day has gone by without some red-shirted pageant in a public square or another burst of Bolivarian bombast from the man who always styled himself as Latin American enchanter-in-chief. So when Venezuela’s presidential airliner touched down in Caracas in the predawn hours Monday, reportedly carrying the ailing leader from a long hospital stay in Havana, expectations soared.

Fueling the frenzy was the fact that the homecoming was preceded by the release of a few recent photographs of Chávez, showing the ailing leader smiling in his hospital bed, and a staccato set of posts from the president’s Twitter account, which had lain dormant since November. "We have returned to the Venezuelan fatherland. Thank you, my God! Thank you, my beloved people!” Chávez tweeted. “We will continue the treatment here."

Just what this sudden reappearance means for the stricken leader’s prospects for recovery is the topic of intense speculation. Chávez’s theatrical return was cloaked in secrecy, and the military hospital where he is said to be housed is ringed by security. The press has been effectively stiff armed by Chávez’s praetorian guard, while throngs of well-wishers were shooed behind a police barrier across the street from the bunker-like clinic. Even less certain are the implications for Chávez’s bid to transform this oil-rich but economically troubled nation into a launch pad for “21st-century socialism,” inspired by the dictums of Latin liberator Simon Bolivar.

Chavez, after all, had not been heard from or seen since Dec. 10, when he jetted to the Cuban capital for a fourth bout of surgery to extract a stubborn tumor, first discovered 20 months ago, and which has dogged his health and the country’s political future ever since. The silence is especially jarring for a nation where nearly every aspect of public life had been tightly scripted by a single leader, who never admitted to sharing power never mind to grooming a successor.

The toll of this leaderless revolution is growing. As rumors fly over Chávez’s health, Venezuela has slipped further into political and economic disarray. Inflation now tops 22 percent, and—despite a defensive 34 percent currency devaluation in January—may reach 30 percent in 2013, according to Alberto Ramos, an emerging-markets analyst at Goldman Sachs. The price spike encourages hoarding, with frantic shoppers emptying the supermarket shelves of basic goods from toilet paper to frozen chicken. Besides shelling out more money for scarce groceries, consumers “have to allocate increasing amounts of time to search for the desired goods and often have to settle for inferior substitutes,” reports Ramos.

“Chávez is like Santa Claus. He arrives by night,dressed in red and flying. No one sees him and only the innocent believe it.”

Though Venezuela sits on one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, power failures are frequent. Violent crime has spiked, turning Caracas (with 118 homicides for every 100,000 residents) into the third most violent capital in the world, according to a recent study by the Mexico-based Citizens Council for Public Security and Penal Justice.

All these woes have been gathering for years, growing worse as the Chávez government diverted oil revenue into populist handouts ahead of last year’s elections. The spending binge has pauperized investment in roads and power lines, and bloated the public deficit, now on track to top a staggering 19 percent of GDP. Chávez’s absence has only made matters worse, adding political uncertainty to the fiscal mess.

Yet, there may be a method to the mystery. Some analysts argue that repatriating Chávez  was a preemptive political strike. Venezuelan blogger Francisco Toro calls it a “Soviet-style information management strategy,” apparently designed to hush the opposition and quell popular fears that the worst had befallen the stricken leader. All the better for the competing factions of chavismo, who are said to be buying time as they scheme to hold onto power when Chávez is eventually declared unfit to rule and elections are called.

Indeed, Chávez’s political foes appeared to be thrown by his theatrical arrival. In a cautious statement, the opposition standard-bearer Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of populous Miranda state, gingerly welcomed Chávez back home while challenging the convalescing leader to step up and take charge of a nation perceived to be increasingly adrift.

Others have been less politic, and are busy hurling conspiracy theories into the blogosphere. Unlike his prior returns from earlier treatment in Havana, the critics noted, this time there was no television footage of the smiling leader waving as he descended the stair to the tarmac. No paparazzi breached the motorcade or the wing of the military hospital that had been cleared to tend Venezuela’s First Patient.

No one has heard the Bolivarian leader speak a word (due to a surgical tube in his trachea, officials parry). And what to make of the carefully culled snapshots of Chávez in his Havana hospital bed, a remarkably fit looking 58-year-old cancer patient flanked by his daughters and smiling through a creaseless brow and deep tropical tan?

If Chávez has returned, he has yet to convince. “Chávez is like Santa Claus,” goes one of the most popular anti-Chávez petards sweeping the Web. “He arrives by night, dressed in red and flying. No one sees him and only the innocent believe it.”