The fiery leader who survived a coup attempt a decade ago is facing a threat that could end Latin America’s most radical populist movement and remove an antagonist of the United States who has built close ties with Syria, Iran and other despotic governments. His departure could also weaken Cuba, the region’s only communist state, which is led by a gerontocracy heavily dependent on subsidized Venezuelan oil.
“We see him, and we know he is sick,” said Evelyn Quevedo, a teacher who, at 57, is the same age as the president. “Something is happening to the president, because if it weren’t that way, he would be on television every day. This is not his style.”
A year after Cuban doctors worked to remove a cancerous growth in a complicated surgery, a president who has run his country like a game-show host is rarely on the air and reveals only sketchy details about his condition. Chavez’s Sunday television program, “Hello, Mr. President,” has been suspended for much of the year, and so have once-
ubiquitous state tours of destinations as far away as Tehran that had been a staple of the state media apparatus.
In their place are smaller but intricately staged events: a brief meeting with officials from Belarus, a halting walk through the presidential palace, cameras panning Chavez head to toe to assure viewers that he is still here and moving without assistance. There are calls from El Comandante to state television programs, and his ministers have taken to reading his tweets at rallies, with the president frequently issuing 140-character missives that substitute for his usual proclamations.
Chavez, though, says the swirling speculation about his health is the work of a diabolical counterrevolution intent on ousting him.
“They say that I cannot walk, that I walk with two walking sticks, that I have a wheelchair,” Chavez said Monday in a packed square in central Caracas. “Soon, we’ll be playing baseball.”
His jowls and body looked swollen, and he walked gingerly, but Chavez used his potent oratory skills and his cultlike status among his followers to try to erase doubts about his health.
He told the sea of fervent red-shirted followers: “Here I am, once more in front of you and, in your name and the name of the fatherland, registering as candidate for president.”
Such pronouncements — affirmations that the end is far from near — are consumed like gospel by his closest associates, who reveal nothing more about an illness considered a state secret. Chavez, who is the only one authorized to speak publicly about his cancer, has revealed that he has had three operations, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.