Venezuelan officials have been tight-lipped about the health status of President Hugo Chavez, causing rumors about Chavez's health status to swirl on Twitter and in the Latin American media.
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since a Dec. 11 surgery for an undisclosed type of cancer, and his administration has released few details about his status other than saying his condition remains “delicate” due to complications from a respiratory infection.
Chavez, 58, was elected for a fourth term in office with 54 percent of the vote in October and is due to be sworn in on January 10. If he dies before that date, the chairman of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, will succeed him until new elections are held, but if he dies after that date, the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, would take over.
In the meantime, the suspense is killing Venezuela.
Spanish daily ABC kicked things off with this analysis of Chavez's condition yesterday (translated from the Spanish):
Hugo Chavez has entered an induced coma in the last few days, with his vital signs very weakened, and maintained only through artificial assistance by the Havana hospital where he was admitted. Sources consulted by ABC confirmed Monday that they were soon planning to disconnect the artificial assistance that prolongs the life of the Venezuelan president.
The article goes on to say that Chavez "has a constant fever, won’t respond to antibiotics, hasn’t eaten solid food for three weeks, had 43.4 centimeters of intestine removed and a tracheotomy, among other health complications," according to the Huffington Post.
Members of Chavez’s family, on the other hand, say his condition is stable. Chavez’s son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, who serves as minister of science, technology and innovation, tweeted, “Compatriots, DO NOT believe the ill intentioned rumors. President Chavez has spent the day calm and stable, accompanied by his children."
But armchair oncologists have already weighed in:
“[Chavez] continues on artificial support at this point they are only prolonging unnecessary suffering,” José Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor who lives in Florida and is an opponent of Chavez, tweeted Wednesday.
"Most likely, he is showing signs of renal failure and a lung infection. But the biggest problem is that, with the delicate situation of the patient, his immune system must be weakened," Marquina, who claims to receive inside information from the Venezuelan president's medical team, told Colombian radio station Caracol.
On Twitter, the hashtag #TellTheTruthAboutChavez, as well as its Spanish equivalent, trended in Venezuela this week. Chavez supporters posted messages wishing for a speedy recovery:
"If all of us Venezuelans ask GOD with fervor and faith, surely he will have tend to our pleas, let us pray for Hugo Chavez and for his health," tweeted Enrique Padron, a Venezuelan musician.
While others simply speculated as to who would take his place:
"People were saying the problem wasn't Chavez but those that surrounded him . . . and now that's exactly who we're in the hands of #TellTheTruthAboutChavez," tweeted Marcos Rodriguez.
The information vacuum has also provided fodder for Chavez's opposition, which has called for the government to schedule constitutionally-mandated elections within 30 days if Chavez is too ill to return from Cuba, where his most recent surgery took place.
"To make us believe the president is governing shows a lack of seriousness that borders on irresponsibility," opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said at a news conference in Caracas, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Because Chavez's vice president is more pro-Cuban than the National Assembly chair, Cuba may have an incentive to delay reporting Chavez’s condition for another week, argues Venezuela blogger Francisco Toro.
"And given the impenetrability of Cuban state secrecy, it’s hard not to speculate that even if the president has already died, we would have no way of knowing it," Toro writes.
On the other hand, Venezuela is in poor financial shape, with large deficits that will likely necessitate unpopular austerity measures soon. In that case, National Assembly head Cabello may not be interested in running Venezuela -- and fixing its economy -- anyway.
Meanwhile, Arreaza has continued his optimistic Twitter campaign: Don't worry, nothing to see here.
"Commander Chavez still battling hard and sends all his love to our people. Perseverance and patience!!!"
El Comandante Chávez sigue batallando duro y le envía todo su amor a nuestro pueblo. Constancia y paciencia!!!
— Jorge Arreaza (@jaarreaza) January 2, 2013