Rumours of the impending demise of Hugo Chavez have been greatly exaggerated, his allies said yesterday, insisting that he will be back at work imminently and telling opponents that they should "stop dreaming" of his death.
The Venezuelan President, who is famed for his regular TV appearances and enthusiatic speech-making, has not been seen or heard from in public since he travelled to a hospital Cuba for a June 10th operation to remove what official sources described as a “pelvic swelling.”
His unaccustomed silence has prompted rumours that the 56-year-old left-winger, who faces a grueling re-election battle next year, may have fallen seriously ill, possibly with prostate cancer. At the weekend, the Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language sister publication to the Miami Herald read largely by Cuban ex-pats said he was in a “critical condition.” The Argentinian offshoot of Wikileaks meanwhile claimed on Twitter to have intelligence that he’d died from a heart attack.
Addressing both reports, the country’s Vice Foreign Minister, Temir Porras, yesterday used his own Twitter account to insist that Chavez was alive and well and would be properly back in the saddle in time for a regional summit which will co-incide with the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence next Tuesday.
“President Chavez is recovering well from his surgery. His enemies should stop dreaming and his friends should stop worrying," read one Tweet. "The only thing that has metastasized is the cancer of the Miami Herald and the rest of the right-wing press,” read another.
US intelligence sources quoted by wire agencies said they had no firm information as to the President’s condition. The country’s Vice President Elias Jaua meanwhile claimed: “the national and international right-wing are going crazy, rubbing their hands together, even talking about the death of the president… They know they cannot win elections against our comandante.”
In an indication that all may not be entirely well, however, Chavez’s usually mild-mannered older brother Adan used a prayer meeting in his home state of Barinas to raise the prospect of armed insurrection if his United Socialist Party fails to hang onto power at next year’s elections.
"It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle," he said, quoting Che Guevara. "As authentic revolutionaries, we cannot forget other forms of fighting."
The confusion surrounding Chavez’s health recalls the Cold War era, when communist regimes were wary of briefing the public about medical condition of their leaders. Since Chavez has no obvious successor, there are also fears that his death would destabilize Veueuzela, one of Latin America’s biggest oil producers.
With this in mind, the leading opposition politician, Henrique Capriles Radonski, said yesterday that he wants to face a fit and healthy opponent at next year’s elections. He added that secrecy regarding his condition could be ploy to maximise political sympathy from a "triumphant" return to health.
“There's been a great lack of information. And it looks deliberate," Capriles told Reuters. "I picture him coming back saying the 'gringo' media had him dead and the Venezuelan opposition wished his death. It's quite the reverse, and I say it as an aspirant to the post."
Chavez has 1.6 million followers on Twitter. Though several messages were posted on his account on Friday, none referred to his health. And there is no way of knowing who actually wrote them. One did, however, express excitement that his daughter Rosines and grandchildren had flown to Cuba to visit him. "Ah, what happiness to receive this bath of love! God blesses me!"