Hugo Chavez: Is He Dying or Just Planning a Surprise?

Venezuelans are scratching their heads over the mysterious silence of their ordinarily garrulous leader.

Since taking office more than 12 years ago, Hugo Chávez has never been at a loss for words. In public squares, at town meetings, or over the airwaves in his Sunday talkathon, Aló Presidente, the Venezuelan president rules by microphone, logging a staggering 4,000 hours on national television. So it is with more than a little trepidation that this nation of 29 million now contemplates the total silence of the Bolivarian revolution's No. 1 windmaker.

Chávez flew to Cuba on June 10 with a swollen hip and a bum knee. After arriving he submitted to emergency treatment for a “pelvic abscess” and effectively disappeared. Venezuelans have not heard his voice or seen a live image of El Comandante since June 12, stoking rumors that range from the wild to the whimsical. Some say Chávez is gravely ill, suffering from prostate cancer and undergoing emergency bouts of radiation treatment; others that he’s on his death bed. His foes suspect it’s all a familiar ruse, and the herald of 21st century socialism is plotting a theatrical return, miraculously “resurrecting” after a brush with death.

As the versions swirl and collide, the Venezuelan leader’s reported illness has mobilized worriers and well wishers from the Andes to the Amazon rainforest. Bolivarian militias donned their red berets, grabbed their rifles and reported, ready for action. Chávez’s mother has become a regular on newscasts. The Wayúu tribe of northwestern Venezuela danced and prayed to send “good energy” to the nation’s ailing chief.

Chávez’s boosters insist that he’s fit, convalescing gamely and merely resting up for his imminent return to Caracas in time to command the anniversary celebration of Venezuela’s independence on July 5. They point to a handful of tweets posted on Chávez’s official Twitter page and a pair of PR photographs showing him—presumably in his Havana hospital room—chatting smilingly with Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel.

Chávez’s opponents aren’t buying that. “The president may be ill, but he’s not mute,” says Manuel Rosales, a former legislator and Chávez archrival who was hounded into exile by the Bolivarian strongman. Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, agrees: “Either Chávez is seriously ill, and a fight is under way in the ruling spheres, or else he is lying low and planning to come back from the dead, like a savior.”

Perhaps he is, but as Arria notes, “Havana is not Jerusalem.” Crisis-battered Venezuelans will likely need more than a staged resurrection to solve their growing political and social woes. After nationalizing dozens of private companies and splashing around oil money on Chávez’s pet programs, Venezuela’s economy is struggling. It was the only nation in the hemisphere to post a recession in 2010 and will fare little better this year. A bumbling price freeze failed to stanch inflation, now rising at a worldbeating 30 percent a year, while provoking chronic food shortages and blackouts on overtaxed power lines. The spiking crime rate has turned Caracas into the murder capital of the hemisphere.

Meanwhile Chávez’s long silence and absence have led to a vacuum of authority, and reports of power struggles have bloomed in Chávez’s inner circle. The Venezuelan constitution is clear: In the permanent absence of an elected leader, the vice president takes over. And yet Vice President Elias Jaua has balked, refusing to step in even as acting president, and thus feeding doubts as to whether the Boligarchs have other, extralegal plans in mind should Chávez fail to finish his term, which runs through December 2012. The president’s own brother, Adán Chávez, who serves as governor of Barinas state and is known as a hardline communist, helped fuel the rumor mill by urging Venezuelans to steel for a succession battle, saying: “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral [option] and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle.”

Pretenders are already jockeying. One is said to be Chávez’s brother, who is constitutionally barred from running for president as a relative of the sitting president (hence the allusion to “armed struggle”). Another highly touted contender is Diosdado Cabello, a former soldier who took part in Chávez’s 1992 failed coup d’etat, and is said to enjoy firm support of the Venezuelan military.

One final possibility is that the fractured political opposition could overcome its chronic disunity and launch a successful challenge in next year’s election. Whether Venezuela’s volatile political system can wait that long is another question. “After 13 years of systematic destruction of our institutions, democracy barely exists,” says Gustavo Coronel, a former director of the national oil company PDVSA, which has been gutted under Chávez. Venezuela’s strongman might well recover. Healing the country’s democracy may take far longer.