A Normally Ubiquitous Hugo Chavez Has Gone Quiet

Jun 22, 2011

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez isn't shy. He's known for his marathon speeches and his media savvy, but Chavez hasn't made a public appearance — not even a Twitter update — for nearly two weeks.

The leader has rarely been heard from since he went to Cuba to treat a "pelvic abscess."

His absence has Venezuelan's talking, reports the AFP:

Officials have tried to be reassuring, saying 56-year-old Chavez was recovering well and was continuing to give orders from Cuba and keep abreast of developments in Venezuela.

But many citizens remain unconvinced. All the more so that a riot last week in a prison that left 25 people dead, and an electricity crisis — both events that would normally elicit a quick response, and perhaps hours of chatter, from the president — have prompted no media appearance at all from Chavez.

"It's all very dark, opaque and mysterious," Ignacio Avalos, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela, told AFP. "It's very unclear. As a Venezuelan, I would have bet my two kidneys that Chavez would have at least said something about what happened in El Rodeo prison."

Chavez, a prolific user of Twitter, hasn't been heard of there since June 4, when he boasted about adding funds to a school lunch program. In a piece today, The Guardian reported that since taking power in 1999, Chavez has interrupted television coverage 2,135 times to address the country. His supporters, The Guardian adds, reacted angrily to criticism of the president's 10-day absence:

Cilia Flores, an MP from Chávez's United Socialist party, last week accused opponents of acting "like vampires and vultures trying to see what they can fish from troubled waters".

In a text message to the Guardian on Wednesday, Venezuela's information minister, Andrés Izarra, said Chávez was "recovering well" but denied rumours that he would return to Caracas in the coming days.

The Wall Street Journal talks to several Latin America experts, who say the episode makes it clear that what's going in Venezuela right now is a classic case of caudillos, that is a leader who connects with the masses and becomes a sole leader while weakening institutions in a country. When they're gone, there's no clear succession. Facing a reelection campaign in 2012, Chavez's absence has left the country puzzled:

Some analysts believe Mr. Chávez' long absence could be a sign his government is entering a crisis, especially if his health deteriorates. "There's nobody that one can see that can take his place," said Claudio Loser, president of Centennial Group Latin America advisory firm and former head of Western Hemisphere affairs for the International Monetary Fund. "As strong as his movement is...it is very much caudillo-oriented, very much linked to the leader in power."

But others believe a healthy Mr. Chávez will soon be back giving orders from Venezuela's presidential palace. The down time in Cuba will not be long enough to disrupt Chávez's legislative agenda or his 2012 reelection bid, says Boris Segura, senior Latin American economist at Nomura Securities.

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