The people of Venezuela are waiting for news about their ailing president Hugo Chavez, who remains in Cuba a month after a fourth operation to stave off the spread of a mysterious cancer that the government wants to say as little about as possible.
His supporters pray for his quick recovery, while his detractors look forward to his departure from office as an opportunity for new leadership and a new direction for the country, which produces almost three percent of the world's oil.
Chavez has already missed the Jan. 10 inauguration that would have marked the start of his third six-year term. It is not clear whether the founder of the Bolivarian Republic will ever be able to step back into office, which raises a great deal of uncertainty about the political stability of the country.
Chavez’s brand of pan-Latin, populist Socialism, known as Bolivarianism (named in honor of the 19th century South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar), has cemented him in the hearts and minds of many poor and working class Venezuelans, who form the majority of the country's population. However, some say Bolivarianism is just another name for classic South American authoritarianism.
“He is not just a symbol of the Bolivarian movement, but [he] also acts as a final arbiter on all major decisions,” said Jason Seawright, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. “His connection to it is very important.”
It is for this reason, Seawright added, that the Venezuelan government has remained so secretive about the state of his health, because the loss of Chavez as a living symbol and decision-maker would threaten its very ability to govern. In this respect, the integrity of Chavez’s health is itself a metaphor for the integrity of the government’s power.
The Bolivarian government, or the movement, will not necessarily collapse without Chavez. But amid the increasing likelihood of a power succession in the near future within his Socialist party and new elections, the uncertainty is too great for the government not to meticulously stage-manage the president's illness and possible demise to its advantage.
“The political system in Venezuela is very weak,” said Seawright. “There are no broad institutional systems for governing. This background of emptiness is why the stakes are so high.”
Just Like Castro, And Not
In terms of symbolic power, there is, Seawright said, a direct parallel between Chavez and his political mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro. In the same way the Venezuelan government has withheld details of Chavez’s illness, the Cuban government was similarly mum as Castro’s health began to decline.
But there is a key difference. In Cuba, Castro took power through an armed revolution and stayed in control for almost fifty years until he fell ill and stepped down in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul. Chavez was elected to office in 1998, though his subsequent re-elections have been criticized for their lack of fairness.
Nevertheless, Chavez has depended upon elections, unbalanced as they may be, to stay in power, while Castro and his government never held elections and stamped out opposition through imprisonment and deportations.
The Bolivarians in Venezuela, on the other hand, faced their strongest challenge yet from the opposition in last October's presidential election, despite Chavez's support from state-controlled media.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days after the president is declared “absolutely absent” from office within the first four years of the term. If Chavez is unable to return to office, another electoral victory for his party is anything but certain.
The situation makes clear the precarious nature of investing so much power, much of it symbolic, in a single person, whose physical body must be held together lest the country's power structure may crumble with it.
As history has shown, the body of a leader invested with great power often ultimately becomes representative of the state; as a result, any diminishment of that body must be downplayed and managed until a transfer of power can be arranged, especially in the event of an unexpected death.
When the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, died while traveling from mercury poisoning (ironically because he believed ingesting it would grant him immortality) in 210 B.C., his chief minister Li Si kept it a secret for two months as the imperial entourage returned to the capital, Xianyang, by covering his body with rotting fish to the mask the odor of its decomposition, or so the legend goes.
Nevertheless, the empire collapsed soon after Qin's death was announced and one of his sons took his place. There was no one with the force of will and stature to hold it together as did Emperor Qin, who had unified the empire through fanatical ambition, conquest and bloodshed.
To be clear, Chavez is not like an emperor. Some may call him a dictator, but that designation misses a key point -- he does not lead with the threat of force unchecked by the masses; instead, he envisions himself as an extension of their will because he comes from among them.
Chavez is a populist leader, meaning that he has dispensed with any real notion of democratic protections for minority viewpoints that run counter to his Bolivarian movement. He is an avatar of the body politic, or so he likes to think.
Even so, the concentration of power, whether granted by the people or taken through conquest, often yields the same result: a deep political void when the leader is gone. Bodies are fragile things, and so are the systems of power that revolve around a single one.
‘It Could Get Much More Chaotic’
Chavez has already appointed a political successor, his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, but it remains uncertain if Maduro will be able to carry the party forward through another election, or if he can keep it unified under his leadership.
“We are already seeing leaders lined up below [Chavez], vying for power,” Seawright said.
The opposition has demanded that the Speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, be installed as interim president in Chavez’s absence, given that Maduro was appointed by Chavez and not elected.
The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the National Assembly’s decision to postpone the inauguration indefinitely as Chavez continues to recover was constitutional given that Chavez is an incumbent, while Maduro leads the nation in his place.
Even if the Bolivarian movement fractured, however, that would not necessarily a boon to the opposition, Seawright said.
“They are unified against Chavez, but without him they could fracture, too,” he said. “It could get much more chaotic.”