CARACAS – As Hugo Chavez battles cancer in Cuba, his lieutenants are glorifying Venezuela’s firebrand leader in what observers see as a campaign to erect a heroic myth that can survive his death.
Since leaving Caracas for Havana more than three weeks ago for his fourth and riskiest round of cancer surgery so far, the larger-than-life Chavez has vanished from view for the longest stretch of his 14-year presidency.
The government has revealed that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for “respiratory deficiency.” Thursday’s announcement, which lacked details, suggests a deepening crisis for the leftist president and has fed speculation that he likely is not well enough to travel to Caracas for his inauguration ceremony.
Even so, his image has been ever present across Venezuela’s state-run media, in adoring new documentaries about his life and legacy and older video clips that lionize the “comandante.”
Some highlight “Chavez’s battles” with the imperialist enemy, aka the United States. Others evoke his closeness with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro or trace his political lineage to independence hero Simon Bolivar, the father of the country.
The regime “exalts Chavez and his accomplishments because it seems clear that his absence could become permanent,” said Luis Alberto Butto, a historian and political analyst at Simon Bolivar University. “It can be seen in the both the volume and the tone (of the messages).”
With sheer force of personality, Chavez has dominated Venezuela like few others in the country’s history, overturning entrenched elites and bending its political system to his populist vision of “21st century socialism.”
But with so much personally revolving around Chavez, it remains to be seen whether anyone else in his camp has the political skills and popular appeal to replace him. Chavez has brooked no rivals and even when he named Vice President Nicolas Maduro last month as his successor and left him in charge of the country, he did so without transferring his formal powers of office.
Maduro said Friday that Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court at a later date if he is unable to take the oath of office in the coming week before lawmakers because of his struggle with cancer.
Maduro dismissed the argument by some opposition leaders that new elections must be called if Chavez does not take office as scheduled. His stance appeared likely to generate friction between the government and opposition over the legality of putting off the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur Thursday before the National Assembly.
Maduro says Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in office beyond the inauguration date stipulated in the constitution, and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a date to be determined, arguing, “The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems in coordination with the head of state, Cmdr. Hugo Chavez.”
As for the opposition, Maduro said “they should respect our constitution.” The vice president held up a small copy of the constitution and read aloud passages relating to such procedures.
Opposition leaders have demanded that the government provide more specific information about Chavez’s condition, and say that if the president doesn’t return to Venezuela by the day of his inauguration, the president of the National Assembly should take over the presidency on an interim basis. But Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a fixed deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
“Maduro’s comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez’s serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
“In this way, Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority and rally support within ‘Chavismo.’ He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance,” he said, referring to the political ideology associated with the president.
Debates that have multiplied on radio and television since Chavez’s departure for Cuba on Dec. 10 have been devoted almost exclusively to the president, rather than any potential successors. Re-broadcast 24 hours a day, they are interspersed with news updates and music clips that glorify — if not deify — the ailing president. On some radio broadcasts, listeners recite prayers and poetry dedicated to him.
A new propaganda spot, meanwhile, shows photographs of an adolescent Chavez against a background of clouds as solemn music plays, followed by pictures of him hugging children and the elderly. It ends with an image of the president in apparently contemplative mood in pouring rain and the slogan: “I am Chavez.”
Underlying the barrage of imagery is a message that appears to be shifting from “Never without Chavez” to “Never without Chavismo.” Billboards and wall posters displaying giant images of citizens with the slogan “I am Chavez” or “The people are Chavez” also reinforce the idea that Chavismo will survive without its charismatic leader.
In a recent video clip, Chavez himself claimed: “I am not an individual, I am the people, damn it!”
But Butto said that represents a challenge for Chavismo, pointing out: “It seems likely there will be no return, so the language has changed. Today they exalt the figure of Chavez to establish a link between the president, his legacy and the future of his political project. The problem is that Chavez is the project.”
Teresa Albanes, an adviser of the main opposition coalition, likened it to the personality cult that arose in Argentina around Juan Domingo Peron and his wife, Evita. “What the Chavistas want to say is that Chavismo will not end with Chavez,” she said.
Top Chavez lieutenants such as Maduro and National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello on several occasions said they would continue the Bolivarian revolution, no matter what the cost. Often described as a populist movement by its detractors, Chavez’s revolution has consisted mainly of redistributing oil revenues to the have-nots through a series of social programs.
The Venezuelan people have “the education, the political culture and the levels of organization to pursue this revolution at least until the end of the century,” Maduro said Tuesday from Cuba.