Venezuela these days feels like The Wizard of Oz on acid. The country’s main newspapers recently carried the news of a tornado-shaped cloud on the front page. Venezuelans, it seems, are more fearful of the appearance of an unusual vertical cumulonimbus above Caracas than by the fact that their president, Hugo Chávez, now governs the country via Twitter. For months he reigned thus from Havana, where he had gone for cancer treatments. And though he has reportedly returned, he hasn’t been seen in public. For the first time in more than a decade, the ubiquitous and hyperactive leader no longer monopolizes the country’s attention. Since the announcement of his illness in June last year, his appearances on TV have dropped by 60 percent. Rumors, though, abound, and the strict control of information about the president’s health only adds to the mystification.
“Venezuelans have been trained by their soap operas to see reality in terms of melodrama,” says Tulio Hernandez, a sociologist and one of the regime’s greatest critics. “Every new revelation about the president’s health is like an episode which increases the suspense of the plot.” Chávez, though, has starred in many melodramatic moments—tearfully (and publicly) begging Christ to let him live longer. But such scenes only reinforce polarization, Hernandez says. “Part of society prays for Chávez to get better, and the other part asks God’s forgiveness for wishing his death.”
Chavistas are forbidden to publicly mention the word “transition,” but clearly the inner circle won’t relinquish power, even if Chávez shuffles off this mortal coil. After a period of cannibalistic disputes between the principal candidates ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 7, Chávez’s supporters have regrouped to take advantage of their dear leader—even while sick. “It doesn’t matter how long Chávez lasts—whether months or years,” one government official told me over lunch. “To win, we have to take advantage of his presence for as long as we can. If Chávez himself can’t be the candidate, whoever he designates will be the new Chávez for us.”
For the role of New Chávez, some have proposed Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro because of his fierce loyalty to the president and his closeness to the Cuban regime. Others have suggested National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a powerful operator in the armed forces who controls the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela but whose popularity is nil. Another Chavista heavyweight, former vice president Jorge Rodríguez, may be a more popular option, but whoever is picked, it’ll be a choice sure to reverberate throughout the region.
On the left, Chávez has been a role model and has been credited with using his power to strengthen the leadership of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Indeed, President Correa told me recently that Chávez is “a great friend. Remember that he came into power in 1998 at the peak of neoliberalism. He came into conflict with everything and everyone.”
Now there are friendlies everywhere—in Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru. “And that is amazing,” Correa said.
Still the question remains: in the land of Chávez, who is the man behind the curtain?
Boris Muñoz is a Venezuelan journalist and a 2010 Nieman fellow at Harvard University. His most recent book is Dispatches From the Empire.