Fourteen days and counting since Hugo Chavez had emergency surgery in Cuba. Like The Man Who Came to Dinner, Hugo’s still there, while Venezuelans Puzzle Over Their Leader’s Health
Mr. Chávez is the most prominent existing example of a common Latin American phenomenon—the caudillo—rulers who base their legitimacy not on any sort of allegiance to institutions, but rather on developing a strong and emotional bond with Latin America’s masses, especially the poor. During his decade-long rule, Mr. Chávez, who combines many of the qualities of a television evangelist with the authoritarian values of a soldier, has weakened many of Venezuela’s already feeble institutions.
Now his illness could weaken his movement as it prepares to face a determined opposition in elections.
“Its a classic case of caudillos where there is no heir apparent,” said Eric Olson, a Latin American expert at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “His emphasis has been on building up the caudillo and on tearing down institutions.”
Mr. Chávez’ health is no doubt a major concern in Cuba. Any instability in Venezuela would have a major impact on the economically distressed island, which depends on cut-rate Venezuelan oil and on the personal connection struck with Mr. Chávez, for its economic survival.
Some analysts believe Mr. Chávez’ long absence could be a sign his government is entering a crisis, especially if his health deteriorates. “There’s nobody that one can see that can take his place,” said Claudio Loser, president of Centennial Group Latin America advisory firm and former head of Western Hemisphere affairs for the International Monetary Fund. “As strong as his movement is…it is very much caudillo-oriented, very much linked to the leader in power.”
But others believe a healthy Mr. Chávez will soon be back giving orders from Venezuela’s presidential palace. The down time in Cuba will not be long enough to disrupt Chávez’s legislative agenda or his 2012 reelection bid, says Boris Segura, senior Latin American economist at Nomura Securities.
One could speculate that all hell would break loose if Chavez returns to Venezuela only to be hospitalized, but all hell’s breaking loose as it is; Venezuelan media headlines are focused on the Rodeo Prison riot, where 5,000 troops are fighting to squelch a prison rebellion that so far has taken some 40 lives.
Heritage points out that
The Venezuelan constitution states that the National Assembly must approve any trip that lasts more than five days, and any absence lasting up to 90 days requires the vice president to take over presidential duties. Chavez has been in Cuba since June 8, and his return remains problematic. Next in line for the presidency is a thuggish hack from Chavez’s United Socialist Party, Vice President Elias Jaua.
Problems needing the executive’s attention continue to arise. On June 12, a three-day riot broke out at El Rodeo I prison, leaving 22 people dead. It spread to El Rodeo II. Armed inmates continue to hold Rodeo II. Notes the U.S. State Department: “Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior. The country’s overall per capita murder rate is cited as one of the top five in the world.”
During Chavez’s medical leave of absence, Venezuela has experienced a sudden increase in electrical power outages—once more raising questions about Chavez’s competence in managing investment in critical infrastructure. After experiencing a power outage in late April that left roughly 40 percent of the country blacked out, outages continue to persist. A failed transformer in the state of Zulia affected states on the Colombian border as well as the second largest city, Maracaibo. As a result of these outages, Venezuela will reportedly begin rationing electricity for the second year in a row.
Venezuela’s inflation rate continues to rise like a hospital fever chart, forcing the government into a series of price control and rationing measures. Inflation rates have skyrocketed to 23–30 percent, and government debt continues to climb.
The etiology of Chavez’s abscess remains undisclosed.