Why Chavez keeps his cancer under wraps
Military personnel attend a mass to pray for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, December 13, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Six presidents from five different countries in Latin America have been diagnosed with cancer over the past few years. Yet Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez stands apart from the others, keeping details about his health shrouded in secrecy. His neighbors in the region have announced their diagnoses and treatments, stamping out speculation and allowing media coverage to get on with it. Both critics and supporters of Chavez, whose idea of medical updates has included declaring himself “completely cured” twice, claim his illness has been used for political gain. However, Chavez’s reluctance to share information about his cancer is hardly unique for a leader poor in both health and transparency.
Presidents from Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Colombia reconciled their illnesses with public concern by disclosing details about their cancers. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff battled lymphoma while campaigning for president, while former Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva allowed journalists to photograph him shaving his head and beard before chemotherapy for throat cancer. Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo kept the public updated after the he was diagnosed with lymphoma while president, ultimately declaring the cancer to be in remission a year later. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez announced the date of her surgery to remove her thyroid gland in early 2012, offering details of her treatment (which turned out to be for naught when a post-operative examination revealed she did not have cancer in the first place). Most recently, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced he had prostate cancer halfway through his presidential term and ahead of politically-sensitive peace talks with the FARC. As with the other leaders, Santos openly discussed his recovery with reporters. These leaders kept voters abreast of developments in their treatment despite the possibility of casting doubt on their political careers.
Rather than follow suit, Chavez seized upon the trend to turn attention to how such a surprising number of Latin American leaders had developed cancer. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s diagnosis in 2011 prompted Chavez – no stranger to controversial claims – to speculate that the U.S. could be behind it all.
“It would not be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it until now,” Chavez told troops during a televised appearance in 2011. “I don’t know. I’m just reflecting.”
Rousseff, Lula, Lugo, Fernandez, and Santos’ transparency about their illnesses stands in stark contrast to Chavez’s approach. To keep details confidential, he has traveled abroad to Cuba for four separate treatments. At the same time, he refuses to specify what kind of cancer he has or its exact location in his pelvic region. This drives the rumor mill, with guesses ranging from colon cancer to a cancer of the connective tissues, called sarcoma.
According to Shannon K. O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, voters should be privy to health details that could impinge on a leader’s job performance. When that information is kept secret, it may signal an effort to limit to democracy. “In nations where you see consolidated democracies, the health of the president is a public importance and is seen as such, so it is shared with the population and the press,” O’Neil says. The result of such openness, of course, is less conjecturing.
Chavez critics demand to know the state of their president’s health. They say his earlier claims to have defeated cancer were used to bolster his image and boost his chances in the October 7, 2012, elections. By revealing details at politically opportune times, they argue, Chavez is able to distract the public from other important national issues. In turn, Chavez’s camp accuses his critics of capitalizing on his illness to make him appear weak.
Chavez follows a well-documented trend of leaders feigning good health to keep a grip on power. Sick leaders must maintain a veneer of vitality, as observers and markets are quick to react to any indication that a leader is in bad shape. Brief absences from public view or hints of physical pain or weakness are enough to send the media into a flurry.
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes this to an extreme by regularly performing hypermacho stunts intended to highlight his vigor, such as shirtless horseback riding or hang gliding with endangered birds. Recent chatter that Putin suffers from a back problem prompted the Kremlin to deny the rumors. Though a bad back would be hardly the stuff of terminal cancer, any appearance of illness could tarnish his bad-boy image.
In secretive North Korea, observers speculated for years that leader Kim Jong-il may have had pancreatic cancer or a stroke. Yet the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011 took Western observers by surprise, as North Korean officials smudged even the details of the exact time, place, and circumstances surrounding his death. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah keeps investors guessing by hiding details about his back problems.
Chavez, while in good company internationally, stands alone among high-profile leaders on the continent. With his health waning and many of his candidates seeking office in gubernatorial elections this weekend, timing is everything. Venezuelans and outside observers are watching and worrying, but Chavez will ensure there is little to see.