Hugo Chávez’s stealth return to Venezuela this week, which was carried out with the same signature secrecy that surrounds all aspects of his health status, makes it clearer than ever that Venezuela is leaderless and in need of someone else to take over.
Mr. Chávez’s entry was unlike any of his triumphal arrivals from previous overseas trips, which featured adoring crowds cheering the return of their hero. Indeed, his delivery into the country was carried out like a secret intelligence operation. He was brought back late at night without advance public notice and spirited off in the pre-dawn darkness to the Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital, accompanied only by members of his family and his political retinue.
The public was not allowed to get so much as a glimpse of the ailing 58-year-old leader to determine whether he is incapacitated, though all signs point in that direction. Access to the hospital’s ninth floor, where Mr. Chávez resides, is tightly restricted and enforced by a phalanx of gun-toting guards. He has not been seen or heard from since he came back, aside from a few Twitter messages that hailed his arrival and then went silent.
Despite all this enormous secrecy, the evidence is that Mr. Chávez’s condition is much worse than his underlings want the public to believe and that they are either kidding themselves or the public — or both — in order to play for time.
Mr. Chávez left for Cuba on Dec. 10, but neither his departure nor his arrival in Cuba were televised. His absence was marked by virtually complete silence from the president himself, though he managed televised conferences during earlier hospital stays.
The increasingly insistent assurances from his designated stand-ins, principally Vice President Nicolás Maduro, that Mr. Chávez was in charge and issuing orders from his hospital bed were rendered less than credible by news that his medical condition was getting progressively worse. Post-surgery complications and what Mr. Maduro called a severe lung infection did little to restore confidence in the belief that the president was truly in charge.
Meanwhile, despite still more assurances that the president would definitely return for his own inauguration for yet another term on Jan. 10, the president was a no-show. Undaunted, Mr. Chávez’s rubber-stamp parliament and supreme court concocted a ruse. The plain words of Venezuela’s constitution notwithstanding, they decided he could simply take the oath of office later, at his convenience.
Since then, Venezuela’s eroding currency has taken a severe hit in the form of a 40 percent devaluation, yet one more measure of the country’s downslide into economic chaos. All of this makes it very clear that members of Mr. Chávez’s inner circle are making it up as they go along.
As long as Venezuela’s president remains invisible, the political and economic crisis will worsen. Having Mr. Maduro or some other Chávez substitute take the reins of power would fail to satisfy the requirements of democracy, given that their legitimacy, such as it is, flows from Mr. Chávez himself, not from the voters.
Mr. Chávez won a clear mandate for another term back in October, but he assured voters that he was cured, and he wasn’t.
The only option is a new election that pits the opposition against the Bolivarian candidate of Mr. Chávez’s party in a fair and open vote. Barring that, what little claim Venezuela might still have to calling itself a democracy would be nothing less than ridiculous.