By SIMON ROMERO, June 28 2011
CARACAS, Venezuela — To the many comparisons that can been made between Venezuela and Cuba — two close allies, both infused with revolutionary zeal, driven by movements that revere their leaders — consider one more: the presidential brother, stepping in during a time of illness.
As President Hugo Chávez quietly recovers in Cuba after undergoing emergency surgery there more than two weeks ago, no government figure has occupied the political void created by his absence more assertively than his older brother, Adán Chávez, a physicist whose radical thinking has often been to the left of the president’s.
He serves a role similar to that of Raúl Castro, who took over as Cuba’s president after illness removed Fidel Castro from the political scene in 2006. And like Raúl Castro, while Adán Chávez may lack his brother’s charisma, he remains a loyalist who has assisted his brother throughout the consolidation of power.
A former Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba and long a member of Hugo Chávez’s inner circle of advisers, Adán Chávez has taken on the role of providing public updates on his brother’s convalescence, shuttling between Caracas and Havana in recent weeks. It was his disclosure last Wednesday that the president would not return to Venezuela for another 10 to 12 days that offered the most serious assessment yet of the president’s slow recovery.
Adán Chávez, 58, now governor of Barinas, a state of cattle ranches in western Venezuela that is a bastion of the Chávez family, has also led efforts to reassure and energize the president’s supporters as rumors swirl about his condition. Citing Che Guevara at a prayer meeting in Barinas over the weekend, he rallied the president’s followers and called on them to remember the armed struggle as a method of “applying and developing the revolutionary program.”
“It would be unforgivable to limit ourselves to only electoral or other methods of struggle,” said Adán Chávez, a former university professor involved in political activity long before his brother, who is less than two years his junior, formed a nationalist cell of young army officers in the late 1970s.
The prominence of Adán Chávez reflects his brother’s dominance of Venezuelan politics since he was first elected president in 1998. Over the years, Hugo Chávez has consistently winnowed other top advisers and potential rivals who rose from his own political movement. Some who remain, like Vice President Elías Jaua, a former director of land expropriations, exhibit total loyalty. (Last week, Mr. Jaua read verbatim on state television the handful of Twitter messages Hugo Chávez wrote to followers.)
Still, no one in the government, including Adán Chávez, has displayed the president’s visceral ability to connect with poor Venezuelans. That may not have mattered too much in Cuba, where the Communist Party holds unrivaled authority over the nation’s political system. But if Hugo Chávez is unable to quickly return to power in Venezuela, it remains to be seen how effectively his brother can hold off the spirited, if divided, opposition here and build support in a governing movement so centered around the president himself.
Adán Chávez did not respond to interview requests. But biographers of Hugo Chávez attribute the president’s political evolution, if not his bruising political style, in part to Adán’s influence and ties in the 1970s with guerrilla leaders like Douglas Bravo, who advocated using Venezuela’s petroleum reserves as a tool for radical change.
While Hugo Chávez grew close to Mr. Bravo and then broke with him, as he has done repeatedly with other mentors, the president still incorporated such thinking into his own ideology, using oil revenues as the driving force in his socialist-inspired revolution.
Now, Mr. Bravo, 79, who is a critic of what he describes as Venezuela’s new dependence on countries like China and Russia, said Adán Chávez was clearly “in the line of succession.” Referring to Adán’s statement about using arms to defend his brother’s revolution, Mr. Bravo noted that neither the vice president nor any other prominent pro-Chávez political leader had said anything so provocative.
“He must be receiving orientation from his brother to say such a thing, because I don’t think he would make such a declaration on his own,” said Mr. Bravo, who has known both men for decades.
Adán Chavez has occupied several important posts in his brother’s 12-year presidency, including that of education minister. He notably shaped relations with Cuba, Venezuela’s top ally, where his brother is healing in a medical center, away from the Venezuelan media’s prying eyes.
Confusion persists here as to the president’s condition, which the authorities attribute to a pelvic abscess. On Sunday, Fernando Soto Rojas, a top Chávez supporter, rejected speculation that the president had cancer.
Cuban state television broadcast photos of Hugo Chávez, smiling and looking animated, meeting with Fidel Castro on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Chávez himself has offered few details about his recovery.
In one Twitter message this week, he simply said that his daughter, Rosinés, and three grandchildren had visited him. “Ah, what happiness to receive this showering of love,” Hugo Chávez wrote.
Meanwhile, the dearth of information about Hugo Chávez has focused attention here on a range of possibilities. Some in the opposition looking ahead at presidential elections next year have suggested that Hugo Chávez may be in better health than many people assume, as he prepares a return to Venezuela to campaign for re-election.
Other critics are concerned with the possibility that the government could delay elections and view Adán Chávez’s prominence with a mixture of captivation and dread. Jonathan Jakubowicz, a filmmaker, said differences existed between the Chávez brothers, notably that Hugo Chávez had worked hard to portray himself as a democratic leader.
“That made him somewhat conceal his radical agenda, successfully fooling some of the smartest people on the planet,” Mr. Jakubowicz said. “His brother will never pretend. If Adán is ever president, we’ll miss Hugo.”
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting