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Why so much secrecy around Chávez's health? Venezuela's not alone.

Venezuelan officials characterized Chávez's health as 'severe' for the first time last night. From dictators to leaders of Western democracies, secrecy around health concerns is often the norm.

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In some cases the secrecy reflects different historical social mores about privacy and the public's right to information. And in many cases it was also an effort not to minimize a leader’s mandate.

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But in an age of social media, such secrecy is not tolerated – or even possible. The recent health statuses of other Latin American leaders facing illness, for example, including the presidents of Paraguay and Brazil, have been promptly released to the public.

In fact, Pedro Burelli, a former member of the executive board of Petróleos de Venezuela and today a political analyst in Washington who is critical of Chávez, says that the leader chose treatment in Cuba, where there is no free press, for the guarantee of secrecy.

“The natural tendency would have been for him to go to Brazil,” Mr. Burelli says, as it boasts among the best cancer treatment centers in Latin America. It’s also where other leaders in the region have been treated.

But in a democracy with a robust press, Burelli says, “Chávez feared that information [about his condition] would filter out.” Instead, he chose "sub-optimal care" in Cuba, in Burelli’s opinion, in order to keep his medical condition tightly concealed.

Imagining the future

In fact, Fidel Castro temporarily stepped down in 2006 and permanently in 2008, after his own health crisis was disclosed only as an intestinal problem and has been a “state secret” ever since. Over the years, Twitter has alighted with speculation of his health, especially after a long period out of the spotlight. Inevitably he has appeared again, either on television or with his name on a written column in the state-run Granma newspaper.

Mr. Pope says that in the case of leaders such as Castro or Chávez, the secrecy is linked to an inability to imagine their countries without them. “We are talking about [an individual], who has totally entwined his own identity with that of Venezuela,” Pope says.

It is possible that the newest announcement on Chávez’s health status by Venezuela’s Minister of Communication and Information, Ernesto Villegas, represents a move toward transparency on the part of the government. But now Venezuelans are speculating why he made the announcement. And he also failed to mention the scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration of Chávez, who won a fourth term in office in Oct. 7 elections.

Instead, Mr. Villegas condemned the "psychological war unleashed by transnational media about the health of the Head of State, with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” he said.

Twitter accounts are likely to stay as active, and as speculative, until the government gives more clarity.

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