Just a block away from President Hugo Chávez’s presidential palace, worshippers at the Santa Capilla church are praying for his quick return to health.
Three weeks out of the spotlight for the leader have fueled rumors at home and abroad of health problems and concerns that the revolutionary may be on his way out as he languishes in a Cuban hospital bed.
“All the churches of this country are praying for Chávez," says Jimmy Olvas, sitting outside Santa Capilla with a boisterous group of domino players. “We pray for him to return quickly and to recover fast.”
While concerned, Chávez supporters in Caracas – known as Chavistas – remain confident in their government.
“Our ministers are doing a good job and our Comandante will be back,” says pensioner Pedro Torrulos as he stands under a large photo of Chávez in a socialist canteen, one of the president’s headline-grabbing initiatives to feed the poor of Venezuela who make up the bulk of his support.
How is Chávez doing?
Compounding Chávez’s long, silent absence are the contradictory statements of his government, which have only fueled speculation.
The statements of those in power signal that they are confused and themselves out of the loop. Deputy Foreign Minister Temir Porras announced on Twitter that his president was “recovering well” earlier this week while his own boss, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has described Chávez’s “great battle” for his health.
Chávez's health issues apparently forced the government to cancel a long-planned Latin America summit scheduled for next week. The event was to be attended by many of the region’s heads of state with the aim of putting together plans for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, essentially an organization designed to counter US influence in the region.
This was to coincide with Venezuela’s bicentenary. As a firebrand revolutionary, Chávez always appears keen to grandstand at events that celebrate the break with colonization. Planning has been huge, and murals continue to be painted as helicopters swirl around Caracas in preparation for a military showcase on Tuesday. No announcement has been made on whether Chávez will be attending but it is looking unlikely with the summit canceled.
Opposition seizes the moment
While Chavistas remain confident, the opposition has jumped at the opportunity to attack not only Chávez and his government’s inability to give a straight answer as to his condition, but also the country’s ills. Henrique Capriles Radonski is a popular opposition leader and is most likely to win February’s primaries in order to fight Chávez in next year’s presidential elections.
After a rally in the Caracas slum of Petare, he said that he was not impressed that the socialist leader’s health was stealing focus from Venezuela’s real troubles.
“The country's problems are not whether the president is or is not sick,” he said in a supporter’s kitchen among balloons and excited children – eerily echoing Chávez’s own immense public relations skills. “To me the problem is what is going on in [the prisons], the electrical problem and all the problems that every day we must solve as Venezuelans.”
He, like many analysts, believes that the whole situtation may be a political ploy in order to raise sympathy for Chávez before a “triumphant return” next week. He takes little interest in a growing debate on whether Chávez’s governance from Havana is legal, seeing it as a sideline to the real debate.
Other opposition figures disagree. “Pretending to be the president from Havana is totally unacceptable and unconstitutional. Every decision that he makes ... is totally illegal,” said opposition legislator María Corina Machado. "This way of handling information is typical of totalitarian regimes,” she continued. “It shows a lack of responsibility and bravery at a crucial time for all of us.”
Meanwhile, Chávez’s elder brother Adán – who has taken the lead on publicizing positive spin on the president’s health – had ominous warnings for the opposition.
“It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” he said this week, quoting legendary Communist rebel fighter Ché Guevara and reminding fans that taking up arms may be necessary to retain power should 2012 elections fail to continue Chávez's "21st century socialism."
Back in the socialist canteen, Torruloc maintains his confidence in the old guard.
“Remember that Fidel has been killed thousands of times,” he said with a smile. “If the opposition don't have Chávez, they go crazy. Without Chávez they're nothing, because they have nothing to talk about.”
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