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Could Chavismo Survive In Venezuela Without Hugo Chavez?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Coming up, a story of survival at sea. Steven Callahan was sailing across the Atlantic alone when nature intervened.

STEVEN CALLAHAN: Suddenly, there was a big crash on the side of the boat and a lot of water came flooding in. So, part of me was frightened and saying you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going right down with the boat, and part of me was saying shut up, do your job.

MARTIN: How Steven Callahan survived adrift for 76 days and how his perilous journey inspired the Oscar-nominated "Life of Pi."


MARTIN: Now, to what has been a major mystery in Latin America - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez incommunicado in Cuba, recovering from a complex surgery to remove cancerous tissue. He is back in Venezuela now, and Chavez's aides say he's back at work, but Chavez still hasn't been heard or seen by anyone outside his inner circle. And that has Venezuelans wondering who's running the oil-rich country. NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Ground zero for Chavismo, the movement that bears his name, is the central square in Caracas. That's where the president's most loyal followers, decked out in red t-shirts and berets gather.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Foreign language)

FORERO: As always, there's music - music with a revolutionary tilt, about how the poor and powerless must fight against the elites. For 14 years, that's the message instilled in this country by Hugo Chavez, the charismatic, leftist, populist former army officer who's beloved by the poor for redistributing the country's oil-fueled wealth. So, the people here have been overjoyed by a series of new developments in the long saga of Chavez's battle with cancer. It's a battle that began in 2011 when a tumor was first detected. First, were a series of pictures on a recent day - the first issued in months - that showed Chavez alive smiling from a Cuban bed. And then three days later came even bigger news: the president's 2:30 A.M. return to Caracas.

JOSE ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: So happy, immensely happy, like when my children were born was the way Jose Romero, who'd been reading a newspaper account in the Plaza Bolivar, put it. But the fact is, the president is not well, as made clear in a terse statement read on state television on Thursday night.

ERNESTO VILLEGAS: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: A respiratory problem persists, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas says, and the tendency has not been favorable. He added that Chavez is clinging to Christ, surrounded by relatives in his Caracas hospital room. The statement, like all the others, has been opaque. Indeed, Venezuelans still don't know what kind of cancer Chavez has or where in his body it's located. They don't know the prognosis. Increasingly, some Venezuelans are demanding that the government say more.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: University students have rallied in the streets to sing patriotic songs and criticize the government's handling of Chavez's ordeal. They claim the government is hiding something, and that the problem for Venezuelan democracy is it seems no one's in charge. Federica Romer is a 19-year-old law student who's been protesting.

FEDERICA ROMER: We want answers. What's going on? What are we waiting for? What are we supposed to expect? None of the medical information that we've been provided is enough.

FORERO: The government has been insisting that Chavez is governing, that he's even issuing written directions because his speech is hindered by a tracheal tube. Whether he is or not, the political life of the country still revolves around Chavez, as it always has.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: On television, there've been commercials featuring El Comandante giving speeches.

CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

FORERO: Or featuring the president's followers thanking him for what he's done for them. But out in the street, in the real world, it has felt for weeks as if the president is most definitely not in charge. When the currency was devalued by a whopping 32 percent, it wasn't Chavez making the announcement, as he normally would. It was Economy Minister Jorge Giordani.

JORGE GIORDANI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: And it was Prisons Minister Iris Varela talking about the aftermath of a prison riot that left dozens dead.

IRIS VARELA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: It's also been Chavez's aides who've been on air trying to deflect criticism over food shortages. On a recent day at one of the city's biggest supermarkets, there was no chicken, no corn oil, no toilet paper and other missing basics. And Miriam Hernandez, who was shopping, said she felt that the country was rudderless.

MIRIAM HERNANDEZ: There's no president. Who signs? I mean, this is ridiculous what's happening. And, honestly, I mean, he's a person who wants to be in every picture, every photograph next to every president. It's finished.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Forero
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