When Churchill was once asked about some aspect of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, he made a memorable statement, tinged with humor: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Something like that can be said of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. And the first of the conundrums has to do with the cancer that’s afflicting him. Will he die or won’t he? Judging from the visible bodily symptoms, there is no question that he has improved. The impressive double chin of fat and cortisone that puffed his face has been reduced, and he is again talking incessantly, singing, jumping, insulting. The usual: He raves, therefore he exists.
But there are other, more subtle symptoms. Raúl Castro, who knows Hugo Chávez’s innards like the palm of his hand, scooted away to look for money and tighten alliances with China, Russia, Vietnam and any country that could alleviate the crisis facing the island if the Venezuelan subsidies suddenly end after the eventual death of the bizarre personage.
Raúl is cautious. His brother foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism some months before it happened but did nothing to mitigate the consequences it would have for Cuba. Then all hell broke loose. Raúl doesn’t want Chávez’s end to catch him with his pants down.
There is more. The Cuban press — at least until now — has not dared to affirm that Chávez is cured. Granma is silent. The official newspaper of the Castro government does not want to repeat the blunder it made some years ago when it announced Fidel’s recovery and his imminent return to power. The journalists and commissars who put out the paper know that no serious person would talk about a cancer cure until five years after the treatments are finished.
The second mystery involves both Chávez and his supporters. He seems to be rising in the polls. For the past 14 years, the country has been divided halfway between those who oppose Chávez and those who love him, separated by a strange strip of politically frigid Venezuelans, the “ni-nis” (neither pro nor con), frozen in indecision.
Nevertheless, Chávez’s acceptance has increased of late, despite the serious problems of insecurity (19,000 murders in one year), inflation (the highest in Latin America) and the sporadic shortages of basic goods for mass consumption. How and why anyone can govern so confoundedly badly and not pay a price at the polls is truly a challenge to common sense.
On the other hand, such a phenomenon is not unheard of. Perón’s popularity never dropped below 70 percent, even though he plunged Argentina into misery. As happened in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the people can emotionally connect with a clumsy and reckless leader who steers them into disaster. It’s one of a thousand variants of the Stockholm syndrome or the mistreated-woman complex.
The third mystery, linked to the previous one, may be the strangest of all. Why does Hugo Chávez remain faithful to an absurd alliance with Iran, Syria, Belarus, North Korea and other states of the same family, all universally repudiated? Why did he support dictator Moammar Gadhafi until the last day of the Libyan’s tyranny?
According to the Israelis, Venezuela helps Iran in its project to build nuclear weapons. What’s the sense of introducing Venezuela into the dangerous hornets’ nest of the Middle East? Why does he bring that harm upon his compatriots?
It is possible that Fidel Castro, father and magical teacher of Hugo Chávez, has conveyed to him his passion for international adventures and his dreams to build an alliance that can bury the West. But if Chávez would observe serenely — and this is like asking an elm to bring forth pears — he would find that the only thing that his Caribbean mentor truly achieved in more than half a century of delirium and deviltry was to bury thousands of Cubans in African cemeteries and whatever inhospitable land suited him for his insane fantasies as a worldwide guerrilla.
Such are the mysteries of sheer irrationality.