For a leader like Hugo Chavez, who has so completely dominated his country’s political scene , the decision to name a sucessor to Venezuela´s presidency while he undergoes surgery for an outbreak of “malignant cells” feels something like a swansong.
It’s the first time that Chavez, in power for 14 years, has admitted publically to something that until now has been only a rumour in Caracas, and solidly denied by his loyal following: that ”el comandante” is gravely ill and might not be able to continue at the head of his revolution.
In Chavez´s own private pantheon of martyrs – a curio shop of Jesus Christ, Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela – the only one missing is himself.
His speech, broadcast live by all the country’s television and radio stations, was charged with the solemnity of a great occasion, something like Hector’s farewell to his people before leaving behind the doors of besieged Troy to fight his last battle.
Was it just another piece of extravagant theater by the famously loquacious leader, or the beginning of a long goodbye?
I’ll never forget Chavez’s triumphant reappearance in 2002 on the terrace of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, brandishing Bolivar’s gold, diamond-studded sword, two days after his enemies, (with the tacit support of the US Embassy) ousted him in a coup d’etat. Chavez’s quick comeback was a trick worthy of the great Houdini, and interpreted in the poor neighborhoods of the capital as the resurreccion of a messiah. “I’m not myself anymore. I’m the people,” he told an exultant multitude.
Before he boarded a plane for Havana, Chavez asked for the support of “all groups, civil, military, at this time”. But can chavismo itself survive without Chavez?
Chavismo is a heterogeneous universe that mixes leftist parties, liberals, ex-military figures, academics, anti-capitalists, indigenous groups etc. The vice president, Nicolas Maduro, the union leader and official successor, has promised to be faithful to his mentor “in this world and in the next”.
Less clear are the loyalties of Diosdado Cabello, a former army lieutenant with a putschist past, who is the current speaker of congress. And then there’s the opposition leader Henrique Capriles and his Democratic Union Movement (MUD), who lost to Chavez in October’s presidential elections but still managed to scoop up 46 percent of the vote. Lacking Chavez´s charisma, Maduro might not be able to stand up to Capriles at the polls.
Chavez has changed the face of Venezuela like no other leader, channeling the feelings of the lower classes who had been nearly invisible to the European-descended oligarchies.
But he has also profoundly divided Venezuelans, once largely indifferent to politics.
Nowadays people either love or hate Chavez. There’s no middle of the road. If Houdini doesn’t pull off his latest trick, his apprentices and enemies might find themselves in a battle for his legacy, bringing inestability to Latin America. Lots of petro-dollars are up for grabs.