LIMA, Peru — The doubts began even before the official announcement that Hugo Chavez had finally lost his fight with cancer on March 5, 2013.
Venezuela’s domineering socialist president had not been seen in public for three months and rumors were swirling.
Some believed Chavez was in a coma; others suggested he had already died and his administration was covering it up.
The government failed to reveal the most basic information about his condition. Today, two years later, the public still doesn’t even know what kind of cancer he had.
And now speculation about the true date of his death has once again erupted.
Panamanian diplomat Guillermo Cochez has alleged that a defector from Chavez’s inner circle claims the president died 66 days before Venezuelan officials admitted.
It may be the stuff wild conspiracy theories are made of — the Panamanian has a reputation for prompting inaccurate reporting about Chavez — and serious government critics are handling it with caution. But the news is reigniting a debate that goes beyond matters of the past.
If confirmed, it would implicate current President Nicolas Maduro and other top officials in a major constitutional fraud.
Think of it this way: Officially, Chavez was sworn in for his fourth term, in private on his hospital sickbed, on Jan. 10, 2013. But Cochez is claiming the president had already been dead for two weeks at that point.
The Venezuelan defector
Venezuelan security agent Leamsy Salazar made waves last month when he defected to the United States and, Spanish newspaper ABC and Miami-based El Nuevo Herald reported, told prosecutors there that Venezuelan National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello was running a drug ring.
Salazar had worked as a senior bodyguard for Cabello — strongman of the Chavismo movement named after the late president — and previously for Chavez himself.
But drug-trafficking allegations may be the least of Salazar’s revelations.
The Panamanian envoy
Cochez, whose own conservative government is staunchly opposed to Caracas’ “Bolivarian” socialist ideology, tweeted: “Leamsy Salazar confirms Chavez died at 7.32pm on 30Dec12. How many lies did they tell to hide that he was dead. Shameless.”
The Chavez family is not happy. Adan Chavez, the late leader’s brother who is a state governor, rejected the claim, calling it “very dirty.”
Cochez did not reveal how he learned of Salazar’s supposed allegation, or respond to GlobalPost’s requests for further comment.
A former ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, DC, you might think he knows what he's talking about.
Trouble is Cochez was the source of a monumental screw-up by respected Spanish newspaper El Pais. As Chavez neared the end, it ran a photo showing an unconscious man on a hospital bed, with tubes in his mouth, who supposedly was the Venezuelan president.
As it turned out, the man was not Chavez at all. And the source of the photo was a video brandished before the OAS by Cochez, claiming that the president was far sicker than his government was letting on.
All of that makes it difficult to calibrate Cochez’s new claim about El Comandante’s date of death.
What experts are saying
“Chavez’s illness and death remain a mystery. There has been so little information released, so it is impossible to really evaluate this,” said Margarita Lopez Maya, a politics professor at Caracas’ Central University. “While Chavismo is in power, it is very unlikely we will ever get to the bottom of this.”
“We just don’t know how Chavez returned from Cuba the last time. Was he conscious, or was he in a vegetative state?” she added. “But these kind of claims do shine a little light on the period around Chavez’s death and feed into the sense of moral indignation.”
Juan Nagel, an economics professor who co-writes the popular Caracas Chronicles blog critical of Chavismo, said: “I have no way of knowing whether Salazar said this, and if he did, is it true? But we know that he was in a position to know. It would seem that he defected with documents to back up what he is saying rather than just relying on his word.”
Harold Trinkunas, a Venezuela expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC think tank, noted: “This is a claim that is almost impossible to verify and will always be denied by the government. That this is even the subject of speculation today reflects the secrecy surrounding the state of President Chavez’s health during his final year.”