With Chávez Ill and State in Flux, Videos Offer an Image of Stability

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- They run around the clock on state television, highly polished videos of President Hugo Chávez hugging children, kissing grandmothers, playing baseball and reciting poetry. As supporters around the world hold up hand-lettered signs that say, "I Am Chávez," the president's voice is heard in one of them shouting, "I demand absolute loyalty because I am not me, I am not an individual, I am a people!"

In reality, officials say, Mr. Chávez lies in a Cuban hospital bed, struggling through complications from cancer surgery while his country heads toward a constitutional showdown over his absence.

Mr. Chávez's fragile health has thrown Venezuela into political uncertainty. After being re-elected in October, he is supposed to be sworn in for the start of his new term on Thursday, but the charismatic leader who has dominated every aspect of government here for 14 years may be too ill to return in time, much less continue in office for the next six years. Top government officials insist that the swearing-in is just a formality. The opposition, meanwhile, says the Constitution requires that Mr. Chávez be present or, in his absence, that a process begin that could lead to new elections.

The government's television barrage seems intent on reassuring loyalists -- and anyone who might raise questions -- that Mr. Chávez is still very much the head of the nation. By keeping his image front and center, analysts say, the government can bolster its position as the caretaker of his legacy, mobilize its supporters for the battle over interpreting the Constitution and build momentum for itself in elections should Mr. Chávez die or prove too sick to govern.

"They have combined the mechanisms of left-wing struggle with the best marketing team there is," said J. J. Rendón, a political consultant who opposes the government.

He compared the saga over Mr. Chávez's illness to a telenovela, one of the popular Latin American soap operas, with its unexpected plot twists that keep viewers on edge. "They are always prepared for different scenarios," he said of the government.

During past trips to Cuba for cancer treatment over the last year and a half, Mr. Chávez worked to maintain his customary visibility back home, heading televised cabinet meetings, making phone calls to government-run television programs and posting on Twitter.

But this time is different. He has not been seen or heard from since his surgery on Dec. 11.

To fill the void, the government montages combine elements of campaign ads and music videos, sometimes with the feel of a religious revival broadcast.

They are Mr. Chávez's greatest hits, showing him on the campaign trail or in scenes from happier times during his many years in office, a nostalgic and emotionally charged way for his supporters to connect with their absent leader. Set to rock, rap or folk music, they mine parallels between Mr. Chávez and his hero, the Venezuelan independence leader Simón Bolívar, and resonate with the religious devotion with which some of his followers regard him.

In one, Mr. Chávez is seen reciting a favorite poem exalting Bolívar. Another shows glowing pictures of Mr. Chávez while choirlike voices sing, "Chávez is the triumphant commander, Chávez is pure and noble love."

"There is a process of converting Chávez into a myth with religious roots," said Andrés Cañizalez, a communication professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

The television spots, he said, are part of "a political strategy to keep alive this idea that Chávez is not just a political leader but he's the father of the country, he's a patriarch, he's a figure who protects us, who takes care of everything for us, something more than a president."

Many of Mr. Chávez's followers already speak of him in religious terms, as a godlike presence, and the campaign seems intended to feed those perceptions.

Before he left for surgery in Cuba, Mr. Chávez announced that if new elections were needed, he wanted Vice President Nicolás Maduro to run as his party's candidate. On Monday, Mr. Maduro reiterated the stance that the swearing-in did not matter because Mr. Chávez had been re-elected, so his government continues uninterrupted.

"The president, who is already in complete possession and development of all of his functions as president, continues to be president of the country," he said.

Opposition leaders say that under the Constitution, if Mr. Chávez is unable to be sworn in on Thursday, the head of the National Assembly should become caretaker president. The Assembly head, Diosdado Cabello, a close ally of Mr. Chávez, has rejected that interpretation.

They have not made it clear what should happen after that, but if Mr. Chávez's absence is prolonged, it could lead to new elections.

Mr. Maduro has little of Mr. Chávez's charisma and connection with voters, and analysts say that the spate of television spots is meant in part to stoke emotions with an eye toward a possible special election.

The main government-run television station, known as VTV, may have an average share of only 7 to 8 percent of viewers, according to industry officials. But the station serves a particularly important role in laying down the government line with Mr. Chávez's core followers, who are sometimes warned not to watch other media.

"It is very important to guarantee the emotion around Chávez, so that if he should go away it would be transferred to his substitute," said Luis Vicente León, a pollster associated with the opposition. "The more emotional and mythic he appears, the stronger will be his endorsement of Maduro."

The television campaign contrasts strongly with the lack of detailed information about Mr. Chávez's illness and his treatment. More than a year and a half after he first received a diagnosis of cancer, officials have not disclosed what kind of cancer he has or exactly where in his body it has been found. They have talked about complications from his latest surgery, his fourth since June 2011, but without giving a detailed account of his condition.

While opposition politicians have called for full disclosure about Mr. Chávez's condition and have proposed sending a commission to Cuba to collect more information, government officials have questioned their motives and insisted that they respect the president's privacy.

In the absence of specific information, rumors have buzzed around social networks, like Twitter.

Government officials have accused opposition leaders of sowing these rumors, and they also blame the news media.

"The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela warns the Venezuelan people against the psychological war that the web of transnational media has unleashed around the health of the head of state with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, denying the popular will expressed in the presidential election on Oct. 7 and ending the Bolivarian revolution led by Chávez," Ernesto Villegas, the information minister, said in a special national broadcast last week.

But the government's handling of information has also given rise to confusion.

On Dec. 24, Mr. Villegas announced in a televised communiqué that the president was rigorously complying with his doctors' orders for absolute rest. A few hours later Mr. Maduro told the nation that the president was walking, exercising and talking on the telephone.

When opposition politicians pointed out the apparent contradiction, Mr. Maduro accused them of trying to "poison the soul of the people."

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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