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Hugo Chavez everywhere yet nowhere

Tens of thousands of Chavez supporters rally in Venezuela amid uncertainty over his health.
Last modified: 25 Jan 2013 08:09
[Photo: Reuters]

There were giant posters of Hugo Chavez, little plastic blow-up dolls of Hugo Chavez, t-shirts with Hugo Chavez's smiling face, flags with Hugo Chavez's image, and even a woman with Hugo Chavez face painted on her cheek.

It was Hugo Chavez here, Hugo Chavez there, Hugo Chavez everywhere.

But in reality, during a rally on Wednesday of tens of thousands of Chavez's most loyal supporters in the working class neighborhood of Caracas called 23 de Enero, Chavez himself was nowhere.

At least nowhere in public.

As of this writing, Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from in the past 45 days, recovering from the fallout from brutally punishing cancer surgery in Havana.

It was his fourth round of surgery in the past 18 months, and with the only formal information about his health coming from regular, yet often vague, press releases from the communications ministry, Chavez's health is the great puzzle everyone here is trying to figure out.

But Chavez supporters - Chavistas as they are called - rallied like there wasn't a worry in the world on Wednesday. It was a party-like atmosphere, and a sea of Socialist red mixed with music, dance, and chants of love for their president.

Impressive as it was visually, as far as pro-Chavez rallies go, it was pretty standard fare.

But these are anything but standard times in Venezuela.

The rally was meant to send a signal to a domestic and international audience that even with the president out of sight, he nor his socialist revolution was out of mind.

"Today is important because we are celebrating the triumph of the revolution, the triumph of commander Chavez, and the triumph and love that we have for our president," Margara Belisario told Al Jazeera.

If any Chavistas had grave concerns about Chavez's health in the immediate- or long-term future, they did a good job of hiding it. "Faith" - it was a word repeated over and over again.

"We have hope and faith and that is why we and people of all faiths pray for Chavez so he can recover and come back soon," said Sandra Vasquez. "We will have him here in Venezuela again."

She paused on the word "will" to make her point clear.

"Chavez is not gone," Albertice Granados said. "He is recovering to come back stronger..."

'Defending democracy'

But on Wednesday, on the other side of Caracas, the views were much different for the several thousand equally passionate people from the political opposition that gathered in a gymnasium in a markedly more subdued affair.

The political opposition, despite receiving about 6.5 million votes in the last presidential election last year, finds itself fractured and trying to pull together their coalition while also, most importantly, remaining relevant during these delicate times.

January 23 is traditionally celebrated in Venezuela for the struggle to oust military strongman Marcos Perez Jimenez from power in 1958.

Nearly 55 years after that historic moment in history, the opposition message was clear: That history is repeating itself in 2013 with Chavez, who they view as having stripped democratic institutions in order to consolidate power in his 14 years in power.

"Fifty-five years later our system of government is under threat," Alfonso Marquina, a prominent opposition lawmaker, told Al Jazeera. "We have again intolerance, authoritarianism, and populism falling over the Venezuelan people and that is why our gathering today is not only to remember the past but also reaffirm the commitment to our fight."

"We are defending democracy," said Irene Martinez, an opposition activist. "Today, 55 years ago we ousted a dictator and now we will remove those today who have kidnapped our government....We won'’t let them take the country away from us."

Otilia Prieto, also from the opposition, added: "We have to protest and unite, because we have to save our country which is a mess right now."

But back on the other side of town, the Chavistas street party continued.

They point to the tens of thousands of mostly working class Chavez supporters on the streets as a sign that the president has increased democratic participation from the ground up, and that won't change, with or without Chavez present.

But in many ways, the competing pro- and anti-Chavez rallies were heavy on show and light on substance that will change the fundamental reality on the ground here.

The opposition had few concrete proposals, and even less avenues to pursue them even if they did, considering Chavistas dominate most organs of government.

At the Chavez rally, it was a great photo op and quite festive, but, in the end, there was no new information on the health of the president or when he might return to his country.

And right now, anything else is just background noise.

Peel back all the sound and fury of competing rallies and in reality the core issue on the street in Venezuela is the health of the president, and only Chavez himself can really answer that question.

Not the opposition. Not the rank and file Chavez supporters. Not anybody on Twitter who claims to have sources. Not any other of the presidents in Latin America who are Chavez allies.

It's become a time in Venezuela when Chavez, and only Chavez, can answer the most pressing question of the day here.

Until that happens, everyone in this country - whether they want to admit it or not - is living in a frozen state that even the hottest street rallies can't melt away.

For Samuel Beckett it was Waiting for Godot.

For Venezuelans it is Waiting for Chavez.

The man who is everywhere, but nowhere at the same time.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel