|Hugo Chávez, right, with Cuban Pres. Raul Castro back in October, when Chávez announced himself cured of cancer.|
The long-winded Chavez hasn't been heard from publicly for more than two weeks, and his vice president says his condition is 'complicated.' The Venezuelan people don't know the details, however, since the Chavez administration has kept the details of Chavez's condition secret. That's also why he's had his treatments in Cuba, where he's safe from a nosey free press (and it's no gesture of confidence for Venezuela's much-vaunted health care system).
Chavez's suddenly critical condition has also revealed a bait and switch of historic proportions. During the recent presidential campaign, Chavez acted as tho he was recovering - even tho he undoubtely knew his prognosis was poor. Venezuelans reelected Chavez, who has already held power for a dozen years, to yet another six-year term. Now, it looks obvious that even if El Comandante survives, he'll be no more than an invalid and a figurehead.
Chavez's illness is sending his country into unknown political territory. It's not clear what will happen if, for example, Chavez cannot make it to his Jan. 10 inauguration. Chavez designated his vice president Nicolas Maduro to succeed him. Maduro has been a loyal chavista, but lacks Chavez's charisma. Will Chavistas support him, or more ideologically figures such as Diosdado Cabello, or Chavez's older brother Adan? It seems likely that no other Chavista politician could win an election against the opposition.
For Colombia, too, Chavez's illness means more uncertainty.
Chavez had seemed to be assisting with the government-FARC peace negotiations also being held in Cuba. Will a Chavez sucessor help?
Other possibilities are scarier. What if a weak Chavez succesor tries to consolidate his power using nationalism by confronting historical rival Colombia?
It also strikes me as ironic that Chavez, a larger-than-life figure who often announced supposed conspiracies to assassinate him, is in the end being felled by a mundane illness which respects no status or power.
One time, back when I was a journalist living in Caracas, Chavez announced that someone had tried to shoot down his airplane with a surface-to-air missile. I visited the beach under Chavez's landing path and talked to residents, whose accounts made it clear that no attack had happened - and that an attack probably wasn't even realistic.
By the same token, Chavez's 'socialist revolution', while denouncing politically incorrect dangers, ignored inconvenient, mundane ones. For example, it was only several years into his presidency that the Chavez government finally eliminated leaded vehicle fuel, which harms children's development. Neither has his government flouridated the drinking water, a proven way to prevent children's tooth decay. Nor does it enforce air pollution laws, but it does spend billions of dollars subsidizing gasoline down to a few cents a gallon (which keeps old smog-belching clunkers on the road).
I once attended one of la revolucion's many long-winded leftie conferences, held in concrete a tower in central Caracas. I remember looking over the event's program, which included speeches denouncing genetically modified food crops, even tho not a single study that I know of has shown GMO's to harm human health. I looked out the tower's window at one of the slums crawling up the hills bordering Caracas and saw plumes of carcinogenic smoke rising from burning garbage, a proven carcinogen. So, Chavez's revolution prioritizes populist measures such as its gasoline subsidy over measures which would save lives.
Maybe it's in bad taste to suggest that a sick man contributed to his own disease, but in this case it seems to be true.
Of course, these policies are important not only for Chavez, but for the millions of Venezuelans whose health suffers because the Chavez government chooses populist measures over healthy ones.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours