Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from since Dec. 9, when the pugnacious populist announced in a televised address that he intended to undergo further treatment in Cuba for an undisclosed form of cancer. Since then, his administration has kept details of his condition under wraps, except to confirm that it is delicate and that he is recovering in a Havana hospital.
Now his vice president, who is serving as caretaker, has added this information: Thursday's scheduled inauguration will be postponed to allow Chavez more time to convalesce. Although the Venezuelan Constitution doesn't speak to this exigency, the country's Supreme Court (packed with Chavez loyalists) has agreed to the delay. Whether he will return in a month, six months or at all is uncertain.
Is the delay the right move or the wrong move? Will it enable the duly elected president to take office as he should or merely throw the country into a state of long-term paralysis? It's impossible to know because of the government's failure to provide a full account of the president's health and an honest appraisal of his prognosis. That's irresponsible and has served only to further stir political divisions in the deeply polarized country.
No one disputes that Chavez, 58, is the president-elect. He won a fourth term in office last year by a comfortable margin, defeating his opponent 54% to 44%.
But what many Venezuelans do question is whether the president's fragile health
will ever allow him to reassume his job. Since he first disclosed in 2011 that he was battling cancer, Chavez has undergone four surgeries. It's not clear what kind of surgery or for what kind of cancer. The government has maintained a near-total news blackout that has raised concern and fueled rumors and conspiracy theories about who is actually in control of Venezuela and its vast oil wealth.
The first step toward dispelling the current political crisis — and making rational decisions about how to proceed — is for Chavez and his allies to stop treating his health as a national secret and tell Venezuelans the full story.