Confirmation that Hugo Chavez's allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.
"He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally," Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his "absolute discretion."
"Absolute discretion" was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.
It's tempting to think that Correa broke the silence around Chavez's illness in order to undermine Maduro. Chavez may have been the undisputed figurehead of Latin America's left, but that's certainly not true of Maduro, whose government is negatively viewed by nearly half of Venezuelans. By contrast, Correa, who also runs his government on the twin pillars of drumbeat nationalism and state domination of the economy, is wildly popular in his own country, and is therefore a more credible candidate to take on Chavez's mantle.
It's equally tempting to suggest that Maduro is thoroughly tired of being chased by Chavez's shadow. Yesterday, Maduro marked his first one hundred days in office on what would have been Chavez's 59th birthday, an occasion that served as a bitter reminder that he has no choice but to invoke his predecessor to shore up his crumbling legitimacy. "It has not been easy," Maduro told a crowd in Sabaneta, Chavez's birthplace. "On behalf of our Comandante…[we must] become more united and prepare for new battles and new victories." Earlier in the day, Maduro welcomed none other than Rafael Correa to Caracas. In what may well have been another swipe at his host, Correa declared that "[C]onformity, mediocrity, corruption, and inefficiency are the internal enemies of the left-wing governments of Latin America."
Make no mistake, these are the same ills that define Maduro's regime. Chronic mismanagement has left the government so cash starved that it is now auctioning U.S. dollars at almost twice the official rate, though the exchange still falls far short of the dollar price on the black market. Simultaneously, Venezuela's dependence on imports has dramatically swelled the price of basic goods like corn and coffee, the net of result of an agrarian reform program denounced by a leading representative of Venezuela's agricultural sector as a "failure" that "drove farmers out of the fields."
Rattled by these developments, Maduro has become increasingly vindictive toward the half of the population that rejected him in April, and still rejects him now. Over the weekend, Venezuela's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, took to Twitter to announce that she was seeking to freeze the bank accounts of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor and publisher of the opposition newspaper El Nacional. As AP reported:
Asked whether freezing his bank accounts could affect El Nacional, Otero said, "I don't think so, but I haven't seen the court papers." His lawyers also hadn't seen the documents, he said.
Legal documents have similarly been missing from another controversial case involving Richard Mardo, a parliamentarian from the opposition MUD coalition. Mardo is accused of receiving funds of approximately $100 million–the source of this money has not been specified–and of declaring only a tiny a fraction of this sum. However, Henrique Capriles, the MUD leader who stood against Maduro during the April election, is adamant that Mardo is the victim of entrapment. As with El Nacional, the real goal here, say MUD supporters, is to silence the opposition by throwing the charge of corruption–an offense normally leveled at the government–in its direction.
Given how agonizingly polarized Venezuelan politics have become, the absence of mass street demonstrations might seem surprising. Capriles, though, has eschewed this approach, opting instead for a strategy of patiently exposing Maduro's corruption wherever it appears, in the hope of weaning away disillusioned supporters of the regime. Whether this method is sustainable is an open question; the emergence of a "birther" movement in Venezuela, which claims that Maduro was actually born in Colombia and is demanding that the president follow Barack Obama's example by releasing his birth certificate, indicates that the more uncompromising opponents of Venezuela's regime are determined to get rid of it sooner rather than later.