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.