NOTE: Yesterday, after this piece was published at Labour Uncut, Chávez was finally declared dead, the piece having anticipated the event by about eight hours. Not, we can reasonably infer, because it actually happened yesterday, but because the pressure from the Cochéz and ABC news stories, as you will now read, and the demonstrators chained outside the presidential palace, finally became too much to sustain the lie.
Now read on…While the elusive state of health of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez seems to have been delicate since at least 2011, it is finally starting to be recognised that he really is not very likely to return as leader, any more than Fidel Castro is ever likely to retake the reins in Cuba. But there is a great deal more to this tortuous tale.
The trouble is, accurate information is so difficult to come by, local media being highly polarised either for or against the man, that no-one can really quite work out the truth; even as to such a simple fact as whether or not the president is still alive.
The evidence that he might not be is circumstantial, yet substantial: he has not been seen in public since his cancer surgery on 11 December, and failed to turn up for his inauguration one month later, leading to severe constitutional speculation as to whether he could legally continue as president in such circumstances.
Things came to a head last week, when a former Panamanian ambassador, Guillermo Cochéz, gave a surprisingly detailed report. It claimed that Chávez had been in a vegetative state since 30 December and had finally had his life-support switched off two weeks ago, at the request of his family. While Cochéz certainly has an axe to grind against Chávez, as a public figure he has also staked his reputation on the claim, one that one simple public appearance by the Venezuelan president would obviously destroy. And, there has been no hard evidence from the administration to the contrary.
Something very odd is going on. The report also tallies with one from 2 January by Spanish newspaper ABC, quoting Cuban sources, that he was in a coma, on life support and a switch-off could happen “at any moment”. Demonstrators outside the presidential palace are now chaining themselves together, rightly demanding to know who is running their country, and under what authority.
We therefore arrive at the bizarre odd situation where Chávez, like Schrödinger’s proverbial cat, is in an indeterminate state somewhere between living and not living, because we have no access to definitive information to tell us which it is.
Now, the human tragedy of anyone who might die relatively young has, in this case, long been tempered by the fact that this is a man, a friend to the monsters Mugabe, Lukashenko and Assad, who has long curtailed the freedoms of his own population, earning him harsh criticism from global human rights organisations (Freedom House gives Venezuela a freedom rating of only 5 out of 7, the worst in South America).
Economically, not unlike Saddam, he has succeeded in the truly challenging task of destroying its oil-rich economy, whose currency has just undergone its fifth devaluation in a decade.
On his running for office, Freedom House also says “his re-election in 2012 was ensured by the massive abuse of state resources”; and by tinkering with, or circumventing, the constitution a la Putin, he has attempted to make his stay in office permanent. Not exactly the actions of a competent, incorruptible and stout defender of freedom and democracy.
And it is those facts, rather than the state of his health, which represent the real tragedy for Venezuela. A tragedy which it now seems has turned full circle, and which Chávez’ aides seem determined to turn into farce.
I mean, at the risk of mentioning the elephant in the room, has it not all gone a bit Monty Python?
Does it not seem that the Chavez administration is trying to convince us, as Michael Palin might once have put it, that “‘e’s just resting”?
And it seems that the president is now claimed to be “resting” in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Apart from his absence from the public eye for nearly three months, he was flown to Caracas after treatment in Cuba in the dead of night, at 2.30am on 18 February, presumably to keep to an absolute minimum the number of eyewitnesses to his return.
And, in all this time, there have only been a handful of photos of Chávez issued, apparently taken in Cuba; photos which have been widely accused of being the product of “el Photoshop”.
We do not yet have the final truth: we cannot rule out the possibility that Chávez is indeed still alive in some meaningful sense of the word but, even by the skewed standards of the Venezuelan media, the evidence for this is starting to look more tenuous daily.
No, if It turns out that Cochéz’ version is correct, it would surely not have been the first time that the Chávez regime had misled the public, especially about his health: for example, before the November elections, he claimed to be in remission from cancer. Immediately after, miraculously, he suffered a relapse.
But it would have been one of the most open and obvious times. And after all, claiming someone is alive, when they are not, would hardly be the act of a trustworthy person, let alone a national government.
Oddly, his supporters in the UK, who include a number of Labour MPs and the current secretary general of the TUC, either fail to grasp the enormity of the fact that they might just be being sold a whopping porky, or simply accept it as “a price worth paying” for the oil money Chávez has spent on the legitimate cause of the Venezuelan poor. But then again, those same supporters in the labour movement fail also, ironically, to grasp how the unpleasant president has simultaneously been oppressing the labour movement in his own country.
Perhaps, despite all this, some of us might just, by a supreme effort, be moved to feel some human sympathy for the condition of the man. But it is a man who, among many other things, has left an indelible stain on the lives of many others: for example, as author of the 1992 coup which left fourteen people dead and over a hundred injured, including eighty civilians.
We also might, if only someone could cut through this farce and tell us what his condition actually was.
This piece first published at Labour Uncut