A modest concession to reality
May 5th 2012, 19:16 by P.G. | CARACAS
EVER since Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, admitted nearly a year ago that he was suffering from cancer, his spokespeople have insisted that no substitute would be required. They have insisted that the president is sure to be cured—though without issuing any medical bulletins as proof—making talk of invalidity or death strictly taboo. This week, however, that façade at last began to crack.
Just before Mr Chávez left for another round of treatment in Cuba on May 1st, he named a new “council of state”, headed by Elías Jaua, the vice-president. The constitution Mr Chávez himself got passed in 1999 mandated that he form this advisory body. It is supposed to consist of five members selected by the president, one by state governors, one by the legislature and the last by the supreme court. But since the president rarely consults and virtually never delegates— his decisions are so personal they often take even close collaborators by surprise—he had never bothered to set it up in practice.
Only the council’s five presidential nominees, plus the vice-president, have so far been appointed. But the rest are likely to be unconditional presidential loyalists as well. So long as the head of state retains full use of his faculties, the council’s role is likely to be limited to taking orders. The first was imparted publicly: Mr Chávez instructed it to come up with a plan for Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a branch of the Organisation of American States. The presence on the council of several prominent critics of international human-rights bodies suggests no one is likely to demur.
Nonetheless, the decision clearly looks like the government’s first public recognition that the omnipresent president’s illness may curtail his ability to govern. After 12 years under Mr Chávez, Venezuelans have grown accustomed to his frequent, lengthy appearances on live television. They are are now a rarity. If the president intended his speech before his departure this week to reassure, it had the opposite effect. By the end, as he spoke of returning to Venezuela, he was obviously close to tears.
In late April senior members of the ruling Socialist party held a meeting to discuss three scenarios for the presidential elections due in October: that Mr Chávez would be weakened, absent entirely, or that the vote would be suspended. Party spokesmen later denied that such talk had taken place. But several independent journalists who had gained access to the meeting insisted they had heard it.
The makeup of the council has led to talk of an eventual presidential transition. The Socialists have been wracked by infighting since Mr Chávez fell ill, and the advisory body could conceivably serve as a de facto Politburo. It includes both Mr Jaua, who if he remains in his post would act as president if Mr Chávez is absent, and José Vicente Rangel, a former vice-president and veteran politician with a broad range of contacts. Mr Jaua is a plausible candidate to succeed Mr Chávez, while Mr Rangel was probably appointed for his vast experience, political contacts and nerves of steel.
But 12 years of one-man rule cannot be undone simply by forming a committee. Only Mr Chávez, who is trying to run the country remotely while undergoing treatment in Cuba, has the authority to knock heads together. Polls suggest that none of the available substitute Socialist presidential candidates would enthuse the electorate. The radical left, as well as political players with too much to lose from a change of regime, might try to ditch the constitution and rule by force. That could split the army and cause chaos. For now, the fiction of business as usual is being maintained. With every passing day, however, it seems less plausible.