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The mysterious case of the missing president

On November 27, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly read a communiqué from President Hugo Chávez where he asked Congress for permission to travel to Cuba. In a characteristically opaque statement, the President said he needed to travel for a combination of "physiotherapy" and "hyperbaric oxygen therapy." Venezuelan bonds rallied following the news.

No one knows exactly how sick the President is, but one thing is clear: He has dramatically curtailed his public appearances. This is not normal behavior from a man who coined the term "communicational hegemony" as a top political priority.

Chávez has made a living by appearing on TV, discussing everything from his bowel movements to having intercourse with his wife. At the same time, TV -- public or private -- is the weapon of choice for his daily battles. Whether it's expropriating dozens of businesses, firing oppositionist public employees, or clumsily attempting to start a war, Chávez lives and reigns on TV like no other politician of his time. It's not by chance that when the PBS show "Frontline" decided to run an episode on his presidency, they called it The Hugo Chávez Show -- Chávez truly is the King of All Media.

But after his re-election on October 7, things changed completely.

As of the time of this writing, the President has not been seen in public since November 15, when he held a televised government meeting inside the Presidential Palace. He was previously seen on TV six days earlier, in the same setting, holding the same type of meeting.

Not surprisingly, there are people who are keeping track of this stuff. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, the President has only been on TV for 495 minutes in November, down from 3,730 minutes in August and 2,466 minutes in September.

Speculation about the future of the Bolivarian Revolution is obviously rampant. However, Venezuelans are beginning to ignore the President's health issues and instead focus on their day-to-day lives. Given the absolute lack of information, and based on previous instances where the President appeared to be on his deathbed only to miraculously recover, many Venezuelans have stopped thinking ahead.

But they must have a plan, particularly those in M.U.D., the opposition coalition. If Chávez is indeed sick enough that he is prevented from appearing in public, then the transition could be near.

In the case the President dies, the Constitution is clear: The Vice-President takes office and elections must be held within the following thirty days. In one of his first acts following the October election, Chávez named Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro as his Vice-President. Maduro, a darling of Havana's governing clique, was always seen as the most likely successor to Chávez.

If the President dies, the M.U.D. will have to coalesce around a candidate, and quickly. The obvious choice is the losing presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who currently fighting for re-election as governor of Miranda. If he were to lose -- which seems unlikely at this point -- he would likely give up any pretense of leadership within the opposition. Other alternatives for the M.U.D. would be Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma or Zulia Governor Pablo Pérez, who is also fighting for re-election.

At this point, however, everything is speculation, as no opposition politician dares to publicly entertain the thought of Chávez passing away. Only Capriles, buoyed in part by a comfortable margin in the polls, dared to wonder aloud about where the President was.

As this drama unfolds, the economy begins to show signs of strain. The pre-election spending binge -- which saw the budget deficit escalate to monstrous levels -- is coming back to haunt Venezuelans. The value of the dollar in the black market, for example, has soared to 3.4 times the official rate. A significant amount of debt will come due next year.

In order to steer the Venezuelan economy, tough choices need to be made. It's too bad that, from the looks of it, nobody is at the helm of the country.

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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