The comandante had not shown up for the rally, disappointing supporters in the sun-baked plaza, a triangle of cracked concrete amid a bustling outdoor market, but they made the best of it. A convoy of cars and trucks adorned with posters of the familiar jowly, smiling face slowly circled, blasting campaign songs from huge speakers. A middle-aged woman in red leggings shimmied to the beat of a campaign song blasting from speakers.
Another handed out flyers with the election manifesto which outlined “five great historic objectives.” One: “Defend, expand and consolidate national independence.” Two: “Continue building Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela as an alternative to destructive and savage capitalism.” Three: “Make Venezuela an economic, social and political power within the growing power of Latin America and the Caribbean.” Four: “Develop a new international geopolitics forming a multicentric and pluripolar world to achieve equilibrium in the universe and guarantee planetary peace.” Five: “Preserve life on the planet and save the human species.”
No one ever accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of thinking small. He casts politics as an existential contest between good and evil, the oppressed and the oppressor. He was seeking a third term yesterday to extend his 14-year rule to 2019. There is a clenched tension in the streets, for no one knows what will happen. Some polls gave the president a wide lead, others showed him trailing. Wild rumors fill the air: Chavez’s family is selling its cattle herds and trucks in anticipation of fleeing to Cuba; pro-Chavez militias are preparing to seal off parts of Caracas; the opposition is planning to assassinate Chavez. Nonsense, but people are worried enough to stockpile water, batteries, tinned food and toilet paper.
The election will decide the fate of Chavez, 58, and his revolution. Lose, and the revolution dies. Win, and it survives, but only for as long as the leader has a pulse. Chavez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once noted, had “a body of reinforced concrete.”
His energy was superhuman, his appetites prodigious. He drank more than 30 shots of sweet, black coffee daily, fuelling a routine that included 3am telephone calls to ministers and aides. No longer. Cancer treatment has bloated and debilitated the comandante. After his diagnosis Chavez changed the slogan “Fatherland, socialism or death” to “We will live and we will win.” All references to muerte in official discourse have been expunged.
“There will be no death here, we must live,” he said.
However, few believe his claims to be cured of a disease whose exact nature and location remains a closely guarded secret. Some palace insiders whisper it is terminal.
The revolution hangs by a thread. There appears to be no plan B, no successor. Chavez surrounded himself mostly with mediocrities, valuing loyalty over competence or, it turned out, honesty. With the chief ailing they look lost. A rally in Catia, a Chavista bastion near the presidential palace, Miraflores, was abruptly cancelled in disarray. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, put on a brave face but a microphone caught his murmured words: Que cagada. What a fuck-up. Not elegant but if Chavez loses it will be the campaign’s epitaph.
Chavez’s absence from many rallies has given him the air of Banquo’s ghost. He hovers in the form of television appearances, and occasional, relatively brief public appearances, an echo of the man who used to barnstorm the country and wade into crowds. Winning the election under such circumstances would be a triumph, and he may well pull it off, but it will not shake off the sense of fin de regime.