Why we know so little about Hugo Chavez’s health

February 28, 2013

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez take part in a rally in Caracas on February 27. (AFP/Juan Barretojuan)

CNN Chile reported the death of long-ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last night, news that the country has braced for since he disappeared from the public eye in December. But even as social media erupted with the news, other sources -- including CNN’s corporate parent -- said the report couldn’t be verified. Multiple sources now say that it’s false.

 

These mistakes happen, of course, especially in a news cycle that moves at the speed of tweets. But the mix-up seems especially telling in Venezuela, where very few know Chavez’s health status.

The president left the public eye in December, when he went to Cuba for medical treatment. The Post’s Juan Forrero reports from Caracas that while officials have claimed Chavez is closely involved in the government’s day-to-day operations, opposition leaders have grown increasingly suspicious.

Venezuelans still don’t know what kind of cancer Chavez has or what his prognosis is. And Chavez was too ill to attend his own inauguration on Jan. 10, leaving a leadership vacuum in his wake. In fact, the president’s most public appearances these days are on Twitter, where he sends messages like this one: “We have returned again to the Venezuelan homeland. Thank God!! Thank you beloved homeland!! Here we continue treatment.”

 

The CNN Chile report relied on the word of Guillermo Cochez, Panama’s ex-ambassador to the regional Organization of American States. According to Cochez, Chavez had been brain-dead and on life support since Dec. 31, and died on Feb. 23 after his daughters asked to remove his breathing tube.

“I challenge the Venezuelan government to refute me,” Cochez told CNN Chile, asking them to present Chavez publicly if he is, in fact, still alive.

But there are plenty of reasons to doubt Cochez, as Gideon Lichfield has pointed out at Quartz. For one thing, Cochez has made these kinds of claims before. And a photo of Chavez and his daughters released in mid-February doesn’t appear to show a man on life support.

This morning, NBC Latino quoted sources in Venezuela saying Chavez is alive and hospitalized in Caracas, with “no change” in his condition. Vice President Nicolas Maduro told the Telegraph that he recently had a five-hour meeting with Chavez, and that the president’s poor health has not stopped him from “giving orders on all aspects of the economic, social and political life of our country.”

Cochez had one thing right: Until Chavez makes a public appearance, it's very difficult to know for sure.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · February 28, 2013