Chavez is not going quietly
Imagine that Barack Obama failed to appear for his swearing-in Monday — and had not been seen or heard from in a month. Imagine that Vice President Biden informed the nation that Obama, though sequestered in a foreign hospital, would remain president and would be sworn in at some unspecified date. Suppose that requests by Republicans for information on the president’s condition were rejected, even as Biden and leading Democrats huddled with foreign leaders to discuss a possible transition.
It’s impossible to imagine a political situation so lawless, scary and downright surreal — unless you are a citizen of Venezuela, where the apparent death throes of Hugo Chavez are unlike anything that even the continent of magical realism has ever seen before. Monday marks the 42nd day since Chavez departed for Cuba, saying he was to undergo new surgery for the cancer he has battled for more than 18 months; it will be the 11th day since his presidential term expired and he failed to appear for the inauguration of a new one.
During that time Venezuelans have heard and read no words and seen no photographs of their ruler — not even a tweet. But his closest aides have been regularly trooping to Havana for meetings with Raul and Fidel Castro, who are openly steering Venezuela’s crisis. Last week Chavez’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro, produced what he said was a Chavez-signed decree appointing a new foreign minister, prompting a furious debate about whether the purported signature — the closest thing to a Chavez sign of life since Dec. 10 — was authentic.
All this would be more amusing if the stakes were not so high. The demise of Chavez — if that is what is to happen — could open the way to epochal change in a region that for a decade has been divided, and sometimes polarized, between rapidly growing and modernizing democracies such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil and a bloc of authoritarian-minded, anti-American, populist throwbacks led by Venezuela. To be sure, the modernizers won the ideological battle long ago — Chavez’s popularity ratings among Latin Americans are lower than any leader in the hemisphere other than Fidel Castro.
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