"Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care," announced the BBC. "Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela," reported the Associated Press. "Chavez in surprise return from Cuba," said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.
Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: "Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time." Even Venezuela's state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez's return are three tweets issued from the Comandante's feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.
In quick succession, Chavez thanks God for returning him to his Venezuelan fatherland, thanks Fidel and Raul Castro for their hospitality in Cuba, and assures us that through his faith in both Christ and his medical team, Venezuelans are going "ever onward to victory!!" ("Hasta la victoria siempre!!")
Surely after two years of mischief and deceit on the part of the Venezuelan regime over Chavez's physical state, some correspondingly healthy skepticism on the part of the media is warranted? If all we have to go on are tweets supposedly written by a man who is breathing through a tracheal tube, shouldn't the headlines more properly read "Venezuelan Government Claims Chavez Return," thus leaving room for a modicum of doubt?
And if, in fact, Chavez did arrive in Caracas at 2.30AM, and was then transferred to a military hospital, according to the account of Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, this begs more questions than it answers. We still know virtually nothing about Chavez's condition. We have no idea when or whether he will be able to take the reins of government. It is precisely because of this power vacuum that Venezuela's Supreme Court, long packed with Chavista judges, defied constitutional provisions on the absence of the president by ruling that Chavez, who missed his January 10 inauguration, could be sworn in for a fourth term at a later, unspecified date.
The continuing telenovela that is Chavez remains useful for deflecting attention from the crisis in which Venezuela is currently mired. The recent devaluation of the Bolivar by 32 per cent set off panic buying in the stores and threatens to put the price of basic goods beyond the reach of poorer Venezuelans. Open political debate is being actively muzzled; one day before Chavez's return was announced on Twitter, the regime confirmed that it would be pursuing criminal charges against a prominent opposition politician, Leopoldo Lopez, as well as his mother, for "presumed irregularities" in accepting political donations in 1998, the year preceding Chavez's accession to power. Ironically, the donations are said to have come from PVDSA, the state oil company that has, under Chavez's rule, become the principal means of subsidizing Chavez's high-profile, low-impact social programs, as well as cut price oil for Chavez's Cuban allies.
The decision to prosecute Lopez went largely unnoticed over the weekend, as did the suggestion of the Foreign Minister, Elias Jaua, that Venezuela would be open to improved relations with the United States. For its part, the U.S. should make clear that any closer ties are contingent upon knowing who it is, exactly, we are dealing with in Caracas.