Is Hugo Chavez really sick?

In a profession that prizes the illusion of reality, Hugo Chavez is one of politics’ best — a consummate actor whose connection with the Venezuelan masses has kept opponents off balance for 13 years. We never know if the Venezuelan president is putting us on. So is he now? For the last several months, Venezuelans ...

Leo Ramirez  AFP/Getty Images
Leo Ramirez AFP/Getty Images
Leo Ramirez AFP/Getty Images

In a profession that prizes the illusion of reality, Hugo Chavez is one of politics' best -- a consummate actor whose connection with the Venezuelan masses has kept opponents off balance for 13 years. We never know if the Venezuelan president is putting us on.

So is he now?

For the last several months, Venezuelans have witnessed the drama of a cancer-stricken Chavez shuttling back and forth to Cuba for treatment, all the while taunting opponents seeking his ouster in October presidential elections. Last week, they were treated to scenes of the usually feisty Chavez in church, tears rolling down his cheeks, hands clasped in his parents', and beseeching Christ, "Don't take me yet." Meanwhile, a rumor went around that he was giving up on Cuba, and heading imminently for superior treatment in Brazil. Only to turn up yesterday in Havana, where he was met by Raul Castro.

In a profession that prizes the illusion of reality, Hugo Chavez is one of politics’ best — a consummate actor whose connection with the Venezuelan masses has kept opponents off balance for 13 years. We never know if the Venezuelan president is putting us on.

So is he now?

For the last several months, Venezuelans have witnessed the drama of a cancer-stricken Chavez shuttling back and forth to Cuba for treatment, all the while taunting opponents seeking his ouster in October presidential elections. Last week, they were treated to scenes of the usually feisty Chavez in church, tears rolling down his cheeks, hands clasped in his parents’, and beseeching Christ, "Don’t take me yet." Meanwhile, a rumor went around that he was giving up on Cuba, and heading imminently for superior treatment in Brazil. Only to turn up yesterday in Havana, where he was met by Raul Castro.

"He is pulling all the stops for sympathy and will likely get it from his support base," a skeptical Stephen Johnson, director of the Latin America program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told me in an email exchange. He said:

Yet what all this theater means is very hard to determine, since few verifiable facts are available on what may be wrong with him. Offers of treatment in Brazil have been spurned before, either because he is not really ill, or because he really believes the best medicine is in Cuba.

We are watching the flow of events in Venezuela in large part because of the potential impact in the greater region, given Chavez’s penchant for projecting influence through the use of the country’s oil proceeds.

Perhaps only Chavez and his doctors know the truth, but if one takes him at his word, his condition appears to have taken a serious turn for the worse. The bravado that followed his first round of cancer treatment is mostly absent, one long-time Venezuela observer told me.

Tom O’Donnell, a Latin America energy analyst who blogs at The Global Barrel, said Chavez for sure is acting. And that his cancer is getting worse. "I think the fact he returned to his hometown with his family and cabinet and begged in church for his life is exactly what it looks like," O’Donnell told me by email. He said:

He has probably either been told his illness will be fatal, or that there is a good chance it will be, and he is begging his God … to spare his life.

He added a bit of a messianic or Moses-like flourish with his asking to be able to continue working for the people and the nation, so as to finish what he sees as his unfinished tasks. This imagery will also assist him (or a designated successor) in the upcoming elections.

What to do if you are Henrique Capriles? Whether or not Chavez is hamming it up, Capriles must lay low or risk appearing to be readying a dance on the president’s grave. Down the road, he could face the prospect of a Chavez-appointed successor, in which case Capriles would need all of his wiles. Or Chavez could appoint a successor and postpone the election, which "would likely aid the new Chavista candidate," O’Donnell reckons.

If [Chavez] were clearly dying, it might be difficult for the opposition to reject such a move.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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