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Chavismo without Chavez

Venezuela’ ailing president

Chavismo without Chávez?

Jul 1st 2011, 17:18 by P.G. | CARACAS

HUGO CHÁVEZ has always tried to project an air of invincibility. Even before his successful campaign to revoke Venezuela’s presidential term limits, he spoke of wanting to stay in office until 2031. The man Venezuelans saw on television last night, however, was barely recognisable as the country’s robust and voluble leader. In a 15-minute recorded speech, a notably thinner Mr Chávez looked stiff and downcast as he announced in an unfamiliar, gravelly voice that he had had a cancerous tumour removed from his abdomen. He conceded that he had made a mistake in not taking better care of his health. Although he said he was confident that the operation had eradicated all the cancerous cells, he recognised that a “steep path” to overcoming the disease awaited him.

The first indication that Mr Chávez was ailing emerged on June 10th, when he underwent emergency surgery for a “pelvic abscess” during a visit to Cuba. He has been there ever since and remained almost entirely silent—even his normally prolific Twitter feed lay dormant for two weeks. The opposition has demanded to be informed about his condition and implored Elías Jaua, the vice-president, to assume temporary control, as the constitution requires. But Mr Jaua shrugged off the calls, leaving the country in political limbo.

As rumours about the gravity of the president’s condition began to swirl, his allies sought to reassure Venezuelans that he was on the mend. Just this week the government released a video showing him holding a recent newspaper to prove he was still alive. And Fernando Soto Rojas, the president of congress, flatly pronounced that “Chávez does not have cancer.”

Now that Mr Chávez himself has confirmed the rumours—exposing his cabinet as ignorant, dishonest or both—his government and United Socialist Party (PSUV) are in disarray. Mr Chávez is the only man who can hold the PSUV’s disparate factions together, and probably its only viable candidate for the 2012 elections. Even the most basic information about his illness, such as which organ was affected, has not yet been revealed, and no one knows when he will return from Cuba. Mr Jaua and PSUV leaders responded to Mr Chávez’s announcement by calling for unity and the continuation of the president’s socialist “revolution”. Yet their grim, scared expressions showed they feared the worst. One Twitter user said they looked “like Dorothy and the Scarecrow on discovering that the Wizard of Oz was just a small man behind a curtain”.

If Mr Chávez cannot run next year, it could affect the opposition almost as much as the PSUV. Its Unity alliance is an unwieldy coalition of over a dozen parties, united mostly by their rejection of Mr Chávez’s policies, and most Venezuelans still do not see it as a viable government-in-waiting. It might splinter if he leaves the political stage. The alliance’s primary is currently scheduled for February, but some commentators are already calling for it to be brought forward.

Perhaps the biggest source of uncertainty is the reaction of the army. Chavismo is an explicitly military-civilian doctrine, and the president—a former army officer and coup leader—has sought to turn the armed forces into a branch of his revolution. The most senior operational general declared just a few months ago that the military were “wedded” to the revolution and would not accept an opposition government. But the bulk of the armed forces are likely to incline towards whoever offers leadership

and stability.

The Venezuelan government is struggling to address a series of woes, many of Mr Chávez’s own making: spiralling crime and terrifying prison riots; crumbling infrastructure, including a near-collapse of the electricity grid; striking public-sector workers; and a sky-high inflation rate. Even the president’s fiercest opponents may find themselves hoping he retakes the country’s reins quickly if the current power vacuum continues for long.