Hugo Chávez: not dead

Reports of the Venezuelan President's death have been exaggerated.

Hugo Chávez, a Mark Twain fan, might feel like quoting Twain's famous quip that "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated" this morning. Reports of Chávez's demise began on Twitter last night after a group calling itself WikiLeaks Argentina (not associated with Julian Assange's outfit) tweeted: "Argentinean Embassy Cable: Confirmed - ALERT!! Hugo Chavez died of heart attack today in Cuba. 06/25/11 08:43AM 0438VZ/11". But the claim was not verified by any news organisation and appeared to be a hoax.

Chávez has been governing Venezuela from a hospital bed in Cuba since 10 June when he had emergency surgery on a pelvic abscess. He was rushed to hospital after suffering abdominal pain while in a meeting with Fidel Castro. The Venezuelan government has insisted that he is "recovering well" and has denied rumours that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Chávez telephoned the state-run television channel, Telesur, on June 12 and said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness. His Twitter account, which had laid dormant for 19 days, was updated on Friday. Chávez tweeted: "I'm here with you during the hard battles every day! Until victory always! We are winning! And we shall win!"

But his absence has highlighted what has been clear for some time: there is no obvious successor to the man who has led Venezuela for 12 years. The left, ostensibly committed to collective agency, has allowed itself to become dependent on another caudillo.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fate of the self-styled "21st centry socialist" has attracted little comment, even in the liberal press (the Guardian, for instance, did not report on Chávez's hospitalisation). But Chávez's unsavoury friendships with dictators and autocrats, including Robert Mugabe, Colonel Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Alexander Lukashenko, mean that he is no longer viewed so favourably by the British left. For Venezuela, the question remains whether Chávezism is possible without Chávez.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn fares well in his toughest interview yet

Labour will be relieved that Corbyn's encounter with Andrew Neil was less painful than Theresa May's. 

Jeremy Corbyn's half-hour BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil was the toughest grilling he has faced since becoming Labour leader. Neil sought to cause Corbyn maximum discomfort by confronting him with his past views on the IRA, NATO and Trident (which he never anticipated having to defend from his current position). 

"I didn't support the IRA, I don't support the IRA," Corbyn said in response to the first. After Neil countered that Corbyn "invited convicted IRA terrorists to tea in the Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bomb," the Labour leader replied: "I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Fein" (a distinction without a difference, some will say). But after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn is aided by the reduced toxicity of the subject (New Labour dealt with terrorists) and the fact that for some voters, the young most of all, "the troubles" are a distant memory.

NATO, Neil recalled, had been described by Corbyn as "'a very dangerous Frankenstein of an organisation', 'a danger to world peace'. Two years ago you said it should be 'wound up'." It is to Corbyn's credit, in some respects, that he struggles to disguise his sincere views, and he did on this occasion. "NATO exists," he observed at one point, eventually conceding after much prodding: "I will be a committed member of that alliance in order to promote peace, justice, human rights and democracy". But nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the subject will seem esoteric to many voters.

Trident, however, is another matter. "My views on nuclear weapons are well-known," Corbyn correctly noted, making it clear that the Labour manifesto committed to full renewal against his wishes. "I voted against the renewal," he said. "Everybody knows that because I wanted to go in a different direction." That the opposition is divided on such a profound issue - and that Corbyn's stance is at odd with the electorate's - is undoubtedly a drag on Labour's support.

But under forensic examination, Corbyn emerged stronger than many predicted. There were few moments of intemperance and no disastrous gaffes. Corbyn successfully dodged a question on whether Labour would cut immigration by replying that the numbers would "obviously reduce" if more workers were trained. Indeed, compared with Theresa May's painful encounter with Neil last Monday, Corbyn's team will be relieved by his performance. Though the Labour leader cannot escape his past, he avoided being trapped by it tonight. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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