Last Sunday the world had its first proper sighting in almost three years of a once limelight-hogging leader. It was Fidel Castro – stooped, 86 years old and with a penumbra of white hair, but very much alive – out and about on a Havana afternoon.
Mr Castro’s reappearance was a useful reminder of the longevity of Latin American revolutionary regimes and the strong men who run them. This is as true of Cuba’s past as it is of Venezuela’s future, which is similarly entwined with the health of another sick man, its cancer-ridden socialist president, Hugo Chávez. Where Mr Castro has gone, so too may Mr Chávez.
Fidel and Hugo, of course, go back many years. They first met in December 1994, when Mr Chávez travelled to Cuba for a seminar about Simón Bolívar, his hero. Mr Castro was waiting for him at Jose Martí International Airport – an impressive talent-spot as it was another five years until Mr Chávez won elections to become president.
Ever since, in return for cheap Venezuelan oil, Cuba has been a second home for Mr Chávez, and Mr Castro a kind of father figure cum political role model, a latter-day Bolívar whom Mr Chávez has sought to emulate – lately quite literally, in a macabre twist of fate.
For the past two months, Mr Chávez has lain on a sickbed in Havana’s elite Cimeq hospital, recovering from cancer surgery. As it happens, Cimeq is the same hospital that treated Mr Castro after he was diagnosed with diverticulitis and forced to retire from active politics in 2006.
Now, as then, precise information about the leaders’ health has been tightly guarded, even though they remained heads of state. Indeed, the last concrete information about Mr Chávez’s health was on December 8, when he announced to the nation, ashen-faced, that he had chosen Nicolas Maduro, then vice-president, as his successor “should anything happen” during surgery. Since then, updates about his health have come only from opaque official announcements, or occasional bedside visitors.
It is almost certain that Mr Chávez came close to death during the operation; his very words had presaged the possibility. But lately there has been a dribble of optimistic reports. On Monday, Fidel Castro himself revealed that Mr Chávez was getting “much better”.
Whether “much better” means Mr Chávez will eventually be well enough to return to Venezuela, and run a country that sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, is another matter. Many Latin American officials do not believe so.
Instead, the working diplomatic consensus is that Mr Chávez may live to see Venezuela another day, even if he is incapable of actively governing. Rather, he could act as a revolutionary “Queen Mother”, bestowing his government with revolutionary legitimacy and the magic dust of his faded but real charisma.
Under Venezuelan law, there will be a presidential election when Mr Chávez formally steps down as president. But given that the opposition lost recent presidential and gubernatorial elections, Mr Chávez’s designated successor will almost certainly win. If so, the regime would have successfully replicated itself.
In many ways, this would be a copycat of Cuba’s “transition” where Fidel formally handed power over to his younger brother Raúl in 2008, two years after he fell ill. Politically, just as Mr Maduro lacks Mr Chávez’s charisma, so too does Raúl lack the magnetic presence of his elder brother. Nonetheless, the regime remains in place.
Similarly, the economy is sputtering along, state-controlled and not doing well, but not so badly that it is about to implode; there have been some tentative reforms. (Thus, on Friday, Venezuela devalued its currency, the bolivar, by 32 per cent.) “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same,” as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa famously wrote.
Collateral damage in the region from Venezuela’s transition has so far been limited to the Colombian government’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas. Caracas and Havana had helped push them along, before they became distracted by Mr Chávez’s health.
At some point, if oil prices collapse and Venezuelans eventually tire of unfulfilled promises, chavismo will fall. But many observers and critics have forecast such an outcome for years and the regime (and Mr Chávez) have shown a remarkable resiliency. They may not outlast us all, but they well endure for at least a few more years. After all, there has been such a transition before, only somewhere else.
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