Under the watch of his loyal presidential guards in their red berets, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is now convalescing on an upper floor of a military hospital that’s draped with a giant banner featuring his smiling face.
But nothing has really changed since he arrived here Monday to continue a difficult recovery process that began Dec. 11 in Cuba, when he underwent a complex surgery to remove cancerous tissue.
Aside from three Twitter posts fired off upon landing in Caracas, Chavez hasn’t addressed his countrymen for almost 11 weeks.
State television plays hagiographic commercials of him embracing followers, but the real Chavez is visible only to those in a small inner circle. And one opaque government statement, issued Thursday, simply said Chavez was “clinging to Christ” as a respiratory problem persisted.
The developments are prompting a burning question that both his fawning followers and his most determined detractors are asking: Will Chavismo — as the president’s movement is known – outlive Chavez if the 58-year-old dies from the cancer he has been battling for nearly two years?
“Lamentably, I think that our country has not been prepared to walk on its own without holding the hand of the leader,” said Nelly Baric, a Chavez loyalist who has participated in debates with other Chavistas about what the political future holds. “But the moment to do it has come, and it has come in an abrupt fashion.”
In the streets, the movement’s loyal soldiers — people who say Chavismo gave them a voice they never had — try to convince anyone who will listen that their leader will persevere.
“We are all Chavez,” they shout at rallies. “With Chavez, everything; without him, nothing.”
For followers such as Luisa Navarrete, 64, a life without “Mi Comandante,” or My Commander, is almost unfathomable. With tears welling in her eyes, she spoke about her love for him and how hard it would be for Chavismo to find an adequate replacement.
“Chavez is Chavez!” she exclaimed. “We Chavistas have a purpose, and what Chavez says is everything.”
Yet, she also thought that the people would honor the edict he issued Dec. 8 before his latest trip to Cuba — that his followers keep Chavismo alive by supporting his hand-picked successor should he be forced to relinquish power.
“We would support that person and continue in this process,” she said.
But those who have their doubts are easy to find. Alejandro Liñan, 28, a newspaper dealer, hoped Chavez would recover. But he believed that if the president’s health is in a downward, irreversible spiral, the men who could take his place — Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the president of congress — would never garner the same support.
“In Venezuela, without Chavez there is no Chavismo,” he said. “It’s a lie that the people will follow Maduro or Diosdado.”
Many in the mass movement who heed Chavez’s every word would disagree. But Venezuelans are keenly aware that a transition away from Chavez’s rule would be traumatic, even turbulent, precisely because the country’s political life has revolved around one man in 14 years of populist rule.
The former army paratrooper has not only controlled the congress, the judiciary, the state oil company, the military, most state governments and the electoral board. Many here say he is in the hearts of millions of Venezuelans, who see him as a wise, all-knowing father.
Using his considerable charisma, Chavez was able to win unconditional support from the poverty-stricken masses as he hollowed out or attacked institutions ranging from the courts to the press.
That permitted him to forge a more direct, personal connection with his followers. With billions of petro dollars under his control, he solidified Chavismo’s reach by doling out jobs to supporters and showering the poor with gifts.
And he did it with his folksy, humorous and sincere style, hugging his followers, remembering their names, receiving and reading their letters — and letting them know, whenever he could, that he loved them.
“What exists is idolatry, a cult of personality toward one person: Chavez,” said Jose Zanoni, a former Venezuelan diplomat and economist who has closely followed the machinations of the government here. “There is no structured thought in Chavismo, but rather a great leader, very messianic, one who mixes social aid and a big connection to the people.”
That kind of outsize personality — and the myth-making that’s been part of Chavismo — could propel the movement into the future, at least in the short-term, if the president were forced from office.
Luis Fuenmayor, a former official in Chavez’s government, noted that the president’s hold on the people’s imagination already paid off for Chavismo on Dec. 16 when it won 20 of 23 governorships. Chavez was already in Cuba, incommunicado.
“Chavez didn’t participate — he was completely out of the way at that moment. And they won,” said Fuenmayor, who was once close to Chavismo but has become a critic. “There already is a Chavismo without Chavez.”
Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente Leon says that if an election were called upon Chavez’s death, then his hand-picked successor, Maduro, would have the upper hand. “A campaign in the wake of President Chavez would be a very potent campaign from the emotional point of view,” Leon said. “Chavismo would have all the force of Chavez.”
Still, from all outside appearances, the powerful men in Chavismo have been reluctant to show that they are considering a future without Chavez or that they are even making decisions in the day-to-day affairs of state. Their stance is that Chavez still rules, communicating with them by writing because a tracheal tube hinders his speech.
In Latin America , where caudillos, or strongmen, have come and gone with striking regularity, there is a precedent that has some relevance here.
The Peronist movement in Argentina retains a powerful hold on people in that country nearly 60 years after its namesake, the populist military officer Juan Peron, was overthrown. His charisma and personal link with Argentines is still remembered by millions.
And Peronists today — such as President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – lionize him and his wife, Eva Peron.
But Peronism has survived by virtue of its pragmatism. It has no coherent philosophy. Indeed, its leader in the 1990s, Carlos Menem, was market friendly.
Chavismo is decidedly left-wing and stridently opposed to American interests in the region, with an important dollop of Marxist thought thrown in.
Some analysts believe that losing a leader who best articulated what Chavismo means — what Chavez has dubbed 21st-Century Socialism — could unravel it from an inherent weakness: its dependence on one man.
Indeed, those who know the intricate workings of Chavismo say that no one has emerged from the movement who even comes close to having Chavez’s strategic acumen or appeal with the masses. In fact, those onetime insiders speak of latent but dangerous rivalries that could fracture the movement after Chavez’s departure.
“I’m one who thinks that if Chavez disappears, then the triumphs of Chavismo will not carry it far,” said Jose Albornoz, a former president of the National Assembly who was once a leader in the movement. “There are too many contradictions, and there is also a difficult economic situation. You need a strong leader to hold it together, and you don’t have one.”
For now, though, Chavismo’s supporters say they believe that their leader can get better and that they are not yet ready to let go.
“I feel Chavez in me,” said Yeraldin Rebolledo, 28, a hospital worker. “He’s always present in everything in our lives. He continues to be what we talk about every day. He’s never missing.”