- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
What exactly is Hugo Chavez recovering from in Cuba? Two weeks ago, he underwent surgery for what he later described as a swelling in his pelvis. Initially, his spokesman said he would return to Venezuela in a few days. But after two weeks, there’s no word when he will return, and Venezuelans are wondering if there’s more to his medical problems than originally thought.
In Caracas, rumors have swirled that he may have actually been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, that he suffered an infection after botched liposuction surgery. The once-fit baseball player has been looking paunchier lately.
Chavez didn’t help matters when he called in to a state TV show on June 12 — the only communication he has had since the surgery — and said there were no “malignant” signs found.
“His choice of words was a red flag,” a former Venezuelan health official told the Wall Street Journal, since a pelvic abscess is usually caused by an injury or infection — nothing that would prompt a search for anything “malignant.”
A pelvic abscess is also something of a mysterious diagnosis since it often doesn’t take this long to recover from, the official said. In fact, the official said Chavez might still have to be hospitalized even after he returns to Venezuela — another reason to suspect something more serious is going on.
Chavez’s almost total radio silence has raised the most eyebrows. When healthy, it’s not uncommon for him to break into television broadcasts and sporting events to give a lengthy lecture about the news of the day. He’s also an avid tweeter. His account (@Chavezcandanga) went silent on June 4th until earlier today, when he marked a public holiday celebrating a 19th-century military victory by tweeting: “Today is my army’s day and the sun rose brilliantly! A huge hug to my soldiers and to my beloved people.”
But why no further tweets for the past two weeks, nor an appearance on television, save for one phone interview? There is certainly plenty going on back home worthy of comment. A prison riot in Guatire, outside Caracas resulted in the deaths of 25 people, and the government was forced to bring in 5,000 soldiers to reestablish order. The country also experienced an electricity crisis that has closed thousands of businesses, schools, and hospitals due to blackouts and power rationing.
The opposition has complained about the lack of transparency surrounding Chavez’s condition. One opposition newspaper editorialized this week that “incompetent Cabinet ministers are turning this into a complete mystery or a state secret that creates uncertainty and anxiety within the population.”
There’s a political calculus that might be at play for Chavez and his allies. With elections coming next year, he may not want to appear weak in public. And some analysts also believe the government might be preparing a triumphant homecoming — whenever he actually makes it home.
“The vacuum now will amplify the magic of his return…to show that Superman overcomes all adversities,” wrote Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente Leon.