Here's an impressive stat: Since taking power in 1999, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spoken on TV an average of 43 minutes per day (he has his own talk show, Aló Presidente) and interrupted national broadcasting to address the nation a whopping 2,135 times, according to Bloomberg. But in the last three weeks, as a 2012 presidential election looms on the horizon, the gregarious 56-year-old leader has gone all but silent, holed up in a Cuban hospital with a mysterious health condition. What's going on? The chain of events brings to mind the vague official assurances, grave rumors, and carefully orchestrated media exposure surrounding the health of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has yet to appear in public after surgery in Saudi Arabia for injuries sustained during an attack on his palace in early June.
June 5 - Chavez kicks off a trip to Brazil, Ecuador, and Cuba, using a crutch after injuring his knee while jogging. Speculation about Chavez's health has been brewing since April, as the president scaled back his TV appearances and public activities.
June 9 - Chavez is photographed in Havana embracing Cuban President Raul Castro. This is the last time he'll be seen in public.
June 10 - Chavez feels pain in his pelvis while meeting with Cuba's Fidel Castro and undergoes emergency surgery at Castro's urging for what officials describe as a pelvic abscess, a relatively minor condition involving an accumulation of pus.
June 12 - In a fleeting phone interview with Venezuela's Telesur, Chavez says he feels better "each passing day" and medical tests haven't revealed "anything malignant." Meanwhile, in Caracas, supporters sign a giant get-well card:
June 14 - Venezuela's opposition claims it's unconstitutional for Chavez to govern remotely but the Chavez-controlled National Assembly disagrees. Vice President Elias Jaua refuses to assume power temporarily, dismisses rumors that Chavez's condition is serious, and cites a presidential decree that week raising the country's debt ceiling as evidence that Chavez is still running the country, albeit from a hospital in Cuba.
June 18 - Cuban state media releases photos of Chavez, decked out in a Venezuelan flag-colored tracksuit, meeting with Raul and Fidel Castro at the hospital.
June 20 - Rumors about Chavez's health accelerate online and on the street, especially, as AFP notes, after a riot "in a prison that left 25 people dead, and an electricity crisis--both events that would normally elicit a quick response, and perhaps hours of chatter, from the president--have prompted no media appearance at all from Chavez."
June 24 - On the same day that The Wall Street Journal suggests Chavez could have prostate cancer and highlights succession concerns, the Venezuelan leader, a prolific tweeter, takes to Twitter for the first time since June 4 but doesn't discuss his health. Instead, over the course of two days, he issues seven exclamation point-filled tweets in which he sends a "giant hug" to the Venezuelan military and people and reflects on how wonderful it is to receive family at the hospital.
June 25 - An unnamed U.S. intelligence source tells The Miami Herald's Spanish-language paper, El Nuevo Herald, that Chavez "is in critical condition; not on the brink of death, but critical indeed, and complicated." On Twitter, Venezuelan Vice Foreign Minister Temir Porras retorts that Chavez is "recovering well from surgery" and the president's enemies "should stop dreaming." The "only thing that has metastasized is the cancer of The Miami Herald and the rest of the right-wing media," he adds.
June 28 - Cuban and Venezuelan TV air a photo and video montage of a lively Chavez (again in the Venezuelan flag-colored tracksuit) meeting with Castro. The leaders share a Tuesday edition of the Cuban daily Granma (pictured above), in what appears to be an effort to prove the date of the encounter, but the conversation between the two leaders is muted by Venezuelan folk music.
June 29 - Venezuelan suspends a regional summit Chavez planned to host in early July because of the president's health--a summit Chavez had been excitedly promoting as "an event to lay the groundwork for a new bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which would exclude the United States and Canada," according to the AP. "If the Caracas rumour mill was already in overdrive, it may now just about explode," The Financial Times observes upon hearing the news. Meanwhile, analysts contemplate a post-Chavez Venezuela and supporters in Caracas attend a mass to pray for Chavez's recovery:
Still, the biggest test may be yet to come--Venezuela turns 200 on July 5. "If the president isn't back by the 5 July, the country is in a state close to chaos," journalist Rafael Poleo writes in Venezuela's opposition El Nuevo Pais..