CARACAS, Venezuela – He’s getting better. He’s getting worse. He’s already dead. The whole thing is a conspiracy and he was never sick in the first place.
The obsessive, circular conversations about President Hugo Chavez’s health dominate family dinners, plaza chit-chats and social media sites in this country on edge since its larger-than-life leader went to Cuba for emergency cancer surgery more than two weeks ago. The man whose booming voice once dominated the airwaves for hours at a time has not been seen or heard from since.
His lieutenants have consistently assured Venezuelans over the last week that Chavez is slowly on the mend and will be back at the helm of the country he has dominated for 14 years. But when will he be back? Will he be well enough to govern? What type of cancer does he have? Is it terminal? If so, how long does he have to live?
Government officials have not answered any of those questions, leaving Venezuelans to their own speculations. The wildest conspiracy theories run the gamut from those who say there is no proof Chavez is still alive to those who believe his illness is a made-up play for sympathy.
“Everything has been a mystery. Everyone believes what they want about the status of his health,” said Ismael Garcia, a leftist lawmaker who belonged to the Chavez movement until a falling-out a few years ago.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro read out a New Year message from Chavez to Venezuelan troops Friday, but for the fourth day in a row offered no updates on the president’s health. Maduro had announced Monday night that Chavez was walking and doing some exercises.
The uncertainty comes with a sense of urgency because Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10.
The government and opposition disagree on what should happen if Chavez can’t show up, raising the threat of a destabilizing legal fight. Beyond that, nobody knows if Chavez’s deputies, who have long worked under his formidable shadow, can hold the country together if he dies.
Like everything else in this fiercely divided country, what people believe usually depends on where their political loyalty lies. Chavez opponents are mostly convinced that the president has terminal cancer, has known it for a long time and should not have sought re-election in October. His most fervent supporters refuse to believe “El Comandante” will die.
“Chavez is going to live on. He is a very important man. He has transformed the world with his ideology,” said Victor Coba, a 48-year-old construction worker standing outside a Caracas church as government officials held a Mass to pray for the leader. “Anyone of us will die first before Chavez.”
Coba scurried off to a street corner where officials were handing out a book of photographs of Chavez’s recent presidential campaign. The comandante’s grinning face looked out from the cover, alongside the slogan “Chavez, the heart of my country.”
The same image looms from billboards erected all over Caracas, from freeway medians to the low-income apartment towers being built with Venezuelan oil wealth. Such services for the poor have helped Chavez maintain a core of followers despite high inflation, rampant gun violence, trash-strewn cities and other problems he has failed to fix.
For many, the attachment to Chavez borders on religious reverence. His supporters wish each other “Feliz Chavidad” rather than “Feliz Navidad,” or Merry Christmas. Government officials have started talking about Chavez like an omnipresent deity.
“Chavez is this cable car. Chavez is this great mission. The children are Chavez. The women are Chavez. The men are Chavez. We are all Chavez,” Maduro said recently while inaugurating a cable car to bring people down from one of the vast slums that creep up Caracas’ hillsides. “Comandante, take care of yourself, get better and we will be waiting for you here.”
Crowds of red-clad supporters roar their approval each time Maduro reassures them. But on the streets, confusion reigns.
“People say he’s going to get better,” said Alibexi Birriel, an office manager eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.
Her husband, Richard Hernandez, shook his head. “No. Most people say Chavez is going to die and that Nicolas Maduro is going to take power.”
Birriel paused, chiming in, “Well, some think this whole thing is theater and that there’s nothing wrong with him.”