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.