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Imagine that U.S. President 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 Joe 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.

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