CARACAS?? Marianela Hernandez’s biggest worry used to be finding cooking oil and meat in her working-class neighborhood here in the Venezuelan capital.
That was before Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez decamped to Havana, Cuba, for mysterious medical treatment and belatedly announced late last month, after returning to Caracas, that he has cancer. Now Hernandez has far more pressing concerns: the president’s health and the turmoil that awaits if he doesn’t recover.
“If El Comandante can’t continue, what will we do?” said Hernandez, a 55-year-old office cleaner. “What will happen to the programs he started, his support for the people? What will happen to us?”
She’s not the only one obsessed with the president’s illness: Venezuela has virtually stopped paying attention to anything else. The 200th anniversary of the country’s founding on July 5 has been crowded out of the popular imagination, as have the remarkable recent successes of the national soccer team in Copa America in Argentina.
This outsize influence in sickness matches Ch?vez’s larger-than-life presence in health. Unlike any other leader in Venezuela’s democratic history, Ch?vez has dominated daily life, steadily amassing power by eroding the autonomy of the country’s political institutions. Since being sworn in as president in 1999, Ch?vez has actively sought to change the country’s political, social, and economic realities, leading many of his followers to portray him as the country’s messianic savior.
Ch?vez draws the bulk of his support from the country’s poor who make up 80 percent of the country’s 28 million population. They support the president because of his popular affect, but also simply because they benefit from the social programs he has introduced — free housing and low-interest loans.
That’s not to say that Venezuelans are universally hoping for a speedy recovery. Roberto Carmona, an out-of-work computer programmer, is baffled by the prevalent hand-wringing. “He’s ruining the country with his policies, so I hope he has to step down. Maybe I can find a job when companies start investing again. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet,” Carmona said, sighing. “As we say here, mala hierba nunca muere [weeds never die].”
The president has been uncommonly reticent about his condition: This is a man, after all, who once on his Sunday television show, Al? Presidente, discussed a bout of diarrhea he had recently suffered. Ch?vez has long admitted that he hasn’t been taking good care of himself, blaming late-night snacking (poundcake is apparently a favorite) for his ballooning weight.
In early July, Ch?vez admitted that doctors had removed a cancerous tumor from his abdomen on June 20 and that a program of chemotherapy had been initiated four days later. Since then, Vice President El?as Jaua has only said that Ch?vez is undergoing “rigorous treatment” and that “the president is moving along in his process.” He gave no further details.
It’s this kind of piecemeal and inconsistent communication from the government about Ch?vez’s health that has fed the rampant public speculation. While Ch?vez stonewalls, his few and carefully orchestrated public appearances are viewed over and over for possible clues about his health as he receives treatment in Caracas.
Many Venezuelans have been willing to offer amateur diagnoses on the basis of such photographic evidence. “He looks paler now and speaks more slowly,” said Nora Alvarez, a 32-year-old housewife who has never voted for Ch?vez. “He looks thinner and less animated. He’s not the same man.” She is convinced that Ch?vez is dying because he has abandoned his habit of ending all speeches with the words Patria, Socialismo o Muerte (Fatherland, Socialism, or Death).
“He doesn’t want to tempt fate,” she said.
Forget dying. Not everyone believes that Ch?vez has cancer. Some think that his illness may be a sham to gain sympathy in the run-up to next year’s election. Ch?vez remains the country’s most popular politician, with an approval rating of about 50 percent — though that marks a decline from 2006, when he received more than 60 percent of the votes.
“He could have had liposuction in Cuba for all we know,” said Santiago Cruz, who owns a pet store in Caracas. “This whole cancer thing could be a fabrication, something that Fidel [Castro] could have counseled him to do. The fact is we have no idea what he really has.”
Given that he is 56 years old and the tumor was located in his abdomen, some doctors have speculated that Ch?vez may be suffering from advanced colon or prostate cancer, a diagnosis that would require aggressive therapy if he is to survive at all.
Increasingly, opposition politicians are calling for full disclosure; the government has responded with silence.