Venezuelan politics: Invisible president

THERE will be an empty seat in Bras__lia on December 7th at the presidential summit held by Mercosur, the South Am...
THERE will be an empty seat in Bras__lia on December 7th at the presidential summit held by Mercosur, the South American trade block. Although Venezuela will be attending as a full partner for the first time, its president, Hugo Ch__vez, cannot attend, since he is currently receiving medical treatment in Cuba. It is the third summit Mr Ch__vez has missed since he was re-elected on October 7th to a third six-year term.

Unease has been growing in recent weeks in Venezuela over the state of the president_s health, despite official assurances that he has been _cured_ of the unspecified cancer he had diagnosed last year. He has not appeared in public since the election, nor on television for the past three weeks. Even his normally active Twitter account has been silent. On November 27th Mr Ch__vez requested parliamentary permission to travel to Cuba for _hyperbaric oxygenation_.__ Rumours that he is having difficulty walking were fuelled by the fact that neither his departure from Venezuela nor his arrival in Cuba were televised.

As has been his practice each time he has sought treatment in Cuba, Mr Ch__vez has refused to allow his vice-president_a position currently held by Nicol__s Maduro, who is also the foreign minister_to exercise the interim presidency. He continues to govern from his hospital bed, using an electronic signature, and in recent days he has appointed two dozen ambassadors by this means. But his absence from the Bras__lia summit seems bound to raise the anxiety to a new level, especially since Venezuelan membership of Mercosur has long been one of the president_s major foreign-policy objectives.

The timing of this latest no-show is awkward. On December 16th Venezuelans will go to the polls again, this time to elect 23 state governors and their respective regional legislatures. The vote is regarded on both sides of the political divide as a crucial test of Mr Ch__vez_s stated aim of making his socialist revolution _irreversible_. The opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance is hoping to retain a powerful voice in the regions, in order to slow or halt the government_s plans to create what it calls a _communal state_. The president_s candidates for governor would normally expect him to accompany them to campaign events, so as to benefit from his popularity and his tub-thumping rhetoric. But Mr Ch__vez is not known to have left the presidential palace since the campaign began except to travel to Cuba, and his absence from the hustings is likely to reduce the chavista vote.

The president_s next unavoidable appointment is on January 10th, when according to the constitution he must show up in parliament for the inauguration of his new term in office. Failure to do so would trigger fresh elections within a month, as would his death, resignation or declared incapacity at any point. In the interim, either the vice-president or the chairman of parliament would take over; the constitution is somewhat ambiguous on this point.

Spokesmen for the MUD have long argued that the government should come clean about Mr Ch__vez_s health. They point out that several other South American presidents have been diagnosed with cancer in the recent past, and that all of them have provided detailed information on their medical condition and treatment. Ministers, however, insist this is a private matter, and have accused the opposition of seeking political advantage from Mr Ch__vez_s suffering.

On previous occasions, official assurances that all was well have been swiftly followed by retractions_a precedent that makes it harder to set the public_s mind at rest. Only the reappearance of a fit president, evidently capable of resuming his normal activities, is likely to do that. And for now, it seems, Mr Ch__vez is unable to oblige.

By The Economist

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