CARACAS, Venezuela — It's been two days since President Hugo Chavez’s return to Venezuela from cancer treatment in Havana and the crowds have dispersed from the capital's military hospital.
In this rough neighborhood, vendors sell freshly-squeezed orange juice and empanadas to passersby just like every other day, while visible security at the medical complex is only slightly tighter.
After more than two months of silence from Chavez since his operation and resulting complications, this is not the triumphant homecoming Venezuelans are used to from their histrionic leader.
In July 2011, on returning after a similar three-week absence for cancer treatment, Chavez stood at the balcony of his Miraflores presidential palace, clad in his olive green army uniform and red beret, and silently lapped up the applause for a full five minutes.
"It's a miracle I am here," he said to the crowd below, who screamed his name in a passion usually reserved for rock stars. "We have started to beat the evil incubated inside my body."
He asked his supporters to join him on a “long march” to 2021 (the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's final defeat of the Spanish).
This time things are different. The public has seen no proof that Chavez is even in Venezuela. The evil incubated inside his body looks to have taken hold, having forced the fourth cancer operation on Dec. 11. Not a word has been uttered in public by the usually garrulous president. His long march looks to have come to a halt.
The manila-colored walls of Caracas’ Dr. Carlos Arvelo military hospital conceal Venezuela’s biggest secret, a potential nightmare for a government that for 14 years has transformed Venezuela and recently won an election to finish out a full two decades of rule.
While Chavez was in Cuba, faithful high-ranking Socialist party officials visited frequently and issued some updates on the leader's health, including that Chavez had struggled to overcome a serious lung infection and that he must breathe through a tracheal tube, rendering it very difficult to speak.
But besides imprecise official updates, no news leaked of Chavez’s condition while he was in Havana’s CIMEQ hospital, a vacuum filled by rumors and media mishaps. The Cubans are famous for their ability to keep a secret; the Venezuelans are not. The heightened threat of leaks as well as public opinion are likely to force one of three scenarios.
“Is Chavez here to die? Is Chavez here to support [Vice President Nicolas] Maduro for a new election? Is Chavez here to return to power?” Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based political pollster, said.
Both strident and moderate members of Venezuela’s opposition are questioning Chavez’s ability to govern. More extreme members even have wondered aloud whether the Castro brothers in Havana are in fact pulling the strings in Caracas, playing on fears that many in Venezuela have that their oil-rich nation is turning into the tightly controlled Communist island.
Gabriela Torrijos organized protests outside the Cuban Embassy over the weekend, where about 20 students were tied in chains angry that nothing was being revealed about the state of their president’s health.
“His return isn’t enough,” she said. “Chavez has arrived but has not shown us that he can govern; we need to know the truth about his health.”
Venezuela's constitution, drawn up by the Chavez government when it came to power in 1999, states if a president is unable to govern, elections must be called within 30 days.
The US State Department on Tuesday said Venezuela should respect its laws and go ahead with a free vote if Chavez is deemed incapacitated. That irked the South American country's Foreign Ministry, which criticized the remarks as a "new and ugly interference by Washington in Venezuela's domestic affairs," Agence France-Presse reported.
If it comes to a ballot, it would likely pit Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, the state governor who failed to beat Chavez in October’s presidential election.
Local pollster Hinterlaces on Tuesday released results that suggest Maduro would beat Capriles by a margin of 14 percentage points, riding the considerable momentum of Chavez’s backing. Capriles slammed the survey, claiming it was carried out by someone "on the government's payroll."
Venezuela would call an election in the case that Chavez were to renounce power or if he were to die. The second of these scenarios, in a country where many are enthralled by their "Comandante," would be very dramatic and would give Maduro's candidacy an even greater boost, said Leon.
Worries that Chavez's death could be imminent were heightened by a government pronouncement that the priority for doctors was "medical" rather than "political."
“The death of a leader at the height of his popularity would be very powerful for elections,” Leon told El Universal, a Caracas-based newspaper, this week. “The funeral for Chavez would merge into the election campaign.”
Leon noted that in Argentina, which many analysts claim is following a political and economic path similar to Venezuela under Chavez, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s approval ratings rose 20 percentage points after the death of her popular husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.
“This isn’t rational,” said Leon, “but emotions are very powerful in politics.”
And that is especially the case in Venezuela where Chavez, even in his absence, can command tens of thousands to the streets, as he appeared to do at his missed inauguration on Jan. 10.
There is a third, happier scenario for Chavez’s supporters here. The government could be stalling on elections, hoping that its Comandante will return to a fit enough state to govern.
He could then be inaugurated publically and resume power of the world’s largest oil reserves, in a rise from the ashes that would dwarf any previous returns and invoke Christ-like comparisons, which, in this largely Catholic country, have already been an undercurrent throughout the saga.
Twelve months ago, as Chavez’s motorcade headed to the airport for treatment in Cuba, the president credited God for his cancer survival as he waved at supporters from his open-topped car, an image of Christ plastered on its windscreen.
"I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, 'Chavez, rise, it is not time to die, it's time to live,’” Chavez said. “Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped.”
While many on Wall Street may hate Chavez’s socialist policies (though many investors profit heavily from Venezuela’s high-yield bonds), even they can see his legacy.
“Chavismo will probably last generations,” said Alberto Ramos, head of Latin America Economic Research at Goldman Sachs in New York. “It will not die.”
Whatever happens, there is little doubt Chavez will not be long forgotten. While still alive, Hugo Chavez has already become a martyr.