At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that's because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez's health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.
Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.
There are many words that come to mind upon viewing these photos, but "dignified" isn't one of them. Chavez is, appropriately, holding a copy of Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, yet nothing about his expression suggests he is taking in anything on the page. In all the photos, he is lying down—were he physically able to sit upright, you can bet that a photo of him doing so would have been snapped. His face looks bruised and what looks like rouge has been hastily and awkwardly applied to his cheeks. Behind the smile is a man in physical pain and mental bewilderment.
The photos were shown on Friday by Chavez's son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who has been traveling between Havana and Caracas to be at his bedside.
He said that Chavez – whose political identity is built around long-winded speeches, meandering talk shows and casual chatter with supporters – was having trouble talking.
"He doesn't have his usual voice," Arreaza told Venezuelan state television. "He has difficulty communicating verbally, but he makes himself understood. He communicates his decisions perfectly. He writes them down."
Chavez's reappearance today—which could well be followed by several more weeks of invisibility—comes two days after his vice-president and appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, arrived in Havana to announce that the Comandante would be undergoing "complex and difficult treatments that must, at some point, end the cycle of his illness." This sounded more like a cry for help than a sober medical diagnosis.
It was Maduro who, last month, claimed—in the course of an hysterical verbal assault against opposition leader Henrique Capriles—that Chavez had "held talks" in Havana with two leading of his leading supporters, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Defense Minister Diego Molero. Similarly, Fidel Castro confidently asserted on February 5 that Chavez "is much better," before promptly revising his assessment one week later.
As indicated in today's news, Chavez is physically incapable of holding talks with anyone; in the photos with his daughters, the tracheal tube through which he breathes, and which makes speech nearly impossible, has been temporarily removed. As for being "much better," today's photos indicate that the road to recovery is certainly a long, and perhaps insurmountable, one.
The only thing we can now conclude with certainty is that governance in Venezuela is being micromanaged by the Cuban regime. For months, the Venezuelan opposition, angered by the constant provision of subsidized oil to the Castro brothers, and resentful of the Cuban military presence in Venezuela, has been saying that their country has become a colony of Cuba. In the days ahead, they will continue to do so. For their part, the Castros are determined to muzzle any talk in Venezuela of a post-Chavez era, because they know that none of his underlings make the grade. However, the release of these photographs merely fuels the realization that precisely such a time is now upon us.