CARACAS – Venezuela called off public New Year’s Eve festivities on Monday and social media sizzled with worry after the government said cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez had taken a turn for the worse.
The streets of Caracas were quiet as front page headlines relayed that Chávez had developed “new complications” from a respiratory infection after undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery, on December 11 in Havana.
His vice president and political heir, Nicolás Maduro, broke the news from Havana on Sunday night, saying the condition of the firebrand leader was delicate and that he faced an uphill battle.
For many Venezuelans, a holiday season without their ubiquitous comandante just wasn’t the same.
“We have never had a Christmas like this. Only God knows what will happen with him and with us,” said 70-year-old retiree Miguel Enrique as he prepared to attend Mass.
Authorities canceled a New Year’s eve concert in a downtown plaza and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas urged families “to ring in the New Year at home, praying and expressing hope for the health” of Chávez.
Crews were taking down the stage at the concert site. Passers-by watched, looking sad.
On Monday on Twitter, hashtags translating into expressions such as “Chávez will live and conquer” and “I love Chávez” were aplenty.
A person who signed as NeriColmenares described the loquacious former paratrooper in almost messianic terms.
“Chávez will live and will conquer because he is a man who turned into a nation, into spirit, into struggle. He has the power to confront all the torments of life.”
But Chávez is also deeply polarizing, even though he has ruled for nearly 14 years, and his detractors spoke out.
“I do not want Chávez to die. We would look really bad as a country if a disease had to do our job of removing him from power,” one Enrique Vasquez wrote.
Chávez, 58, is scheduled to be sworn in on January 10. But his ill health has raised concerns that he won’t be well enough in time for the inauguration, if ever.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, a presidential election must be held within 30 days if the head of state is incapacitated or dies before his inauguration or within the first four years of his term.
But Chávez’s government has said the inauguration can be postponed if the president is not fit enough to be sworn in.
As the constitution says he must be sworn in on January 10, “anything else will be hard to sell without it being construed as an institutional coup,” Leon said.
But Maduro and parliament speaker Diosdado Cabello — who would take over temporarily, pending new elections, if Chávez dies or is incapacitated — have left the door open for Chávez to be sworn in later by the Supreme Court.
In the October 7 election, Chávez won 54 percent of the vote compared to 45 percent for Capriles — but some opinion polls had put the candidates in a virtual tie, raising opposition hopes of a long-awaited victory.
In his televised announcement Sunday from Havana, Maduro spoke alongside one of Chávez’s daughters, Rosa Virginia, and other prominent Venezuelans.
Hours later Villegas, the information minister, went on TV to deny rumors circulating on social media that Chávez had in fact already died.
“Do you think the daughter could have sat there, so peacefully, during that appearance if that were the case?” the minister asked.