Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank
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The sick man of Havana
But just how sick is secret
The Economist, England
Caracas.- THE Venezuelan constitution guarantees citizens the right to “timely, accurate and impartial information”. But as Hugo Chávez, the man who inspired the document, departed on July 16th to resume his cancer treatment in Cuba, friends and foes alike were once again left with no answer to the question of the moment: just how ill is the president, and what is the prognosis?
According to the official version, Mr Chávez underwent emergency surgery for a “pelvic abscess” in early June, after symptoms emerged when he happened to be in Cuba. It was not until June 30th that he admitted, in a recorded video, what some independent journalists had been claiming for some time: that a second operation had removed a cancerous tumour. He returned, unannounced, to Caracas on July 4th in time to watch (on television) the celebrations of the bicentenary of Venezuela’s independence. In brief (by his standards) media appearances, he let slip a few more details of his condition. But there has not been a single medical bulletin, and even the precise location of the “baseball-sized” tumour has still not been revealed.
His choice of Cuba for further treatment suggests that the secrecy will continue. Brazil’s government offered a hospital in São Paulo where both Dilma Rousseff, now the country’s president, and Paraguay’s leader, Fernando Lugo, were successfully treated for lymphatic cancer. Venezuela’s medical association is offended because Mr Chávez has sought care outside the country. Some opponents have pointed out that when Cuba’s veteran leader, Fidel Castro, underwent abdominal surgery in 2006, Cuban doctors were reported to have botched the initial operation. But in communist Cuba, the information blackout about Mr Chávez’s treatment can be kept up. He insists that “not a single malignant cell” has been found anywhere else in his body. But he admits that he will require chemotherapy, contradicting earlier statements by aides.
When he requested permission from the National Assembly to leave the country, Mr Chávez, a former army officer, gave no date of return. For the first time, he has delegated some of his administrative and budgetary powers, to the vice-president, Elías Jaua, and to the finance and planning minister, Jorge Giordani. Both men are intensely loyal civilians from the radical wing of chavismo. Mr Jaua has been granted the power to sign expropriation decrees, in consultation with Mr Chávez.
The opposition says that the country cannot be run from abroad. The constitution states that the vice-president must stand in fully when the president is “temporarily absent”. Pro-government legislators argue that the opposition is seeking to ease Mr Chávez out of office. But his many exhortations in recent weeks urging unity, both in the ruling party and in the army, suggest that the president is worried that any relaxation of his grip risks unleashing a struggle for power.
That is because Mr Chávez has created a personalised regime of government-by-live-television in which senior officials must interpret his every whim on pain of dismissal. To endeavour to show that he remains in charge, before his departure he created, on camera, an electronic signature for use while he is away. But it will take more than such theatrics to dispel the doubts over his ability to micromanage affairs of state from a Cuban hospital. The governance of Venezuela is now bound up with the president’s illness. Treating this as a state secret may only increase the tension back home.