The chatty doctor

I had never heard the name Salvador Navarrete before. A Venezuelan doctor, I now learn.

Navarrete was all over the news yesterday.

In a wide-ranging interview (in Spanish), Dr. Navarrete was quoted as saying what everyone has been murmuring for the past month or so: that Hugo Chávez is gravely ill with a pelvic sarcoma – a retroperitoneal sarcoma – and that he has, at best, two years to live.

Navarrete claims he was the President’s personal surgeon until earlier this year, and that his information comes from the family, as well as from consultations with other doctors. He says he has not personally evaluated Chávez’s condition because the President has switched to dealing exclusively with Cuban doctors. As a curious side note, he confirms that the President is manic-depressive.

I have no way of knowing if Navarrete is right or not. His claim that he was the President’s doctor has not been challenged, but if he has been treating the President’s health all these years, he must be “wedded” to Chavez’s revolutionary project. He claims to have been a part of the President’s (extinct) MVR party.

In other words, this is no opposition doctor.

Initially, I thought this item blasting the messenger but not denying the content was the official government response. However, I have not been able to find the original source, so I don’t know if the government has said anything about Navarrete’s claims.

Regardless, there has been no official response denying these claims. Until now, there is no counter opinion, no real dispute over the facts, and no attempt to reinforce the President’s message that he “has no cancer.”

I don’t know what all this means. What I do know is that someone in the opposition has to begin talking about this publicly. Obviously, it can’t be the Presidential candidates, but pretending like Chávez having a terminal illness is not a game-changer is, frankly, nuts.

Up until now, Venezuela’s government has relied on three things: the President’s overwhelming popularity, his control over the Institutions and the Armed Forces, and the sky-high price of oil. It’s the vaunted three-legged stool supporting the regime.

A terminal disease challenges two of these three. The outcome could be one of two: either the stool collapses, or it’s replaced by another, more repressive stool. Either outcome is bad for us.

Then again, the good doctor could be wrong, and Chávez could rise from his illness like the proverbial Phoenix.

It’s a tricky situation for the opposition. Discussing the ills of your political opponent can make you come across as callous and insensitive. But I’ve always believed it’s best to talk about things than to ignore them. And right now, there is a big, fat, red elephant in the middle of our public-sphere living room.

We need to – sensitively – begin discussing the transition away from Hugo Chávez more openly, because it’s a real possibility. It might not happen, but it very well might, and it does us no good to ignore this possible outcome.

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