Skip to content

The Justice of Cancer

December 29, 2011

(Pre-chemo. Photo courtesy of Sassy Wire.)

In June, Hugo Chávez was rushed to the emergency room during an official state visit to Cuba. At the time, they reported simply that he had a stomach abscess.

In early July, the Venezuelan government officially announced that Chávez had a still undisclosed form of cancer.

Since then, we’ve seen humanity—in all its frailty, and in all its ugliness—on both the left and the right.

Whatever else it may be, the presidency of Hugo Chávez has been defined by a show of strength. Many have described him as a 21st Century Caudillo.

The term caudillo is a throwback to Latin American colonial history, when a political-military leader would be in charge of a colony (or a region of a colony), often ruling with an iron fist. There is no direct translation to English for the term “caudillo”, but one commonly accepted term is “strongman.” These leaders were often charismatic populists.

The image of the eternal, fearless strongman is larger than life, but not quite larger than death. There’s no room for cancer unless the storyline becomes that of a miraculous recovery, proving strength over death itself.

For those whose lives have not been touched by cancer, the very essence of this disease is powerlessness. Your body—or the body of one you love—is really destroying itself, and there really is nothing within your power to stop it. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, this becomes your reality.

If you’re lucky, all hope is not lost. Instead of succumbing to the disease, you can fight back through chemotherapy or radiation treatment—two treatment options that could also kill you if the cancer doesn’t.

At the very least, you will be physically weak, emotionally drained, and mentally exhausted, and spiritually weary.

Chávez swallowed his pride and deferred his dream by postponing the inaugural meeting of the CELAC due to his treatments. When the summit did take place, some reports indicated that he was visibly more tired when talks resumed for the second day.

He declared himself cancer-free four chemo treatments and fewer than five months after the official announcement of his diagnosis. This statement of strength was punctuated by the fact that he was wearing a military uniform. As reported by the HuffPost (see linky above):

“It’s like a miracle that I’m standing here,” he said, speaking to red-clad supporters who filled a square and waved excitedly to him.

“Thanks to God there is no presence of malignant cells in my body after four months of battle,” Chavez said.

The crowd chanted: “Onward, commander!”

I guess the tell-tale chemo-induced baldness means his hair was easily within Venezuelan Army uniform regs.

(Post-chemo. Photo courtesy of

The party line—that nobody needs to worry for him, because he’s never been healthier in his life—is what former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega refers to simply as the “Big Lie.” According to his sources, the cancer is spreading, and it seems unlikely that Chávez will live to see the October 2012 presidential elections.

I have to admit that I am somewhat skeptical of Ambassador Noriega’s seemingly never-ending pool of nameless and faceless sources within the Chávez Administration. However, the behavior of Hugo Chávez over the past few months seems indicative of a man who is torn.

Show of strength one day, next day he pulls back. We can only imagine the fears that plague him.

Contrary to what many analysts would have you believe, it’s impossible to get inside the mind of someone like Hugo Chávez and to truly understand the reasoning behind the stuff he does. There are plenty of theories that offer explanations as to why he has been replacing key cabinet members.

But if it’s not to help position him to win reelection next year, it seems logical that a man who is coming face to face with his own mortality is strategically placing key allies who will fight to continue la Revolución after his death.

And that’s why it makes me sad.

Not because he needs the pity of some 20-something imperialist gringa chick who has never seen him in person, but because he’s a human and he deserves dignity—no matter how much he has denigrated the dignity of others.

My mother, nearly 7-years cancer-free, is the strongest woman I know.

I only know this for a fact because I saw her at her weakest: when the radiation made her so sick that she could not get out of bed, and no matter how soft gentle I tried to be, she would still cry as I applied the burn cream in a desperate attempt to relieve just a little bit of her pain.

My mother is strong because she came to terms with her frailty, and she persevered.

I’ve seen some truly horrible comments as people (both Latin America analysts, and the general public) wish him the worst. As the daughter and granddaughter of breast cancer survivors, I can only assume that these people have never been touched by cancer.

Venezuela would probably be better off with a different leader, although I do have some concerns that Chávez has systematically weakened the governmental institutions to the point that we have no idea what will happen post-Chávez.

But folks, it’s one thing to say that the people deserve a better leader; it’s something else entirely to wish a painful death upon the abusive one they have.

My thoughts and prayers are with Hugo Chávez. I’ve seen what cancer can do to people, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, no matter how corrupt and unjust. Not even someone who likes to pick choose which political prisoners are worthy of being freed to seek medical attention, and which political prisoners deserve to die of cancer in prison.

We’re better than this. Seeking justice means more than just getting even. In fact, the two are probably opposites.

[EDIT: See comments below for a few important clarifications, and to join in the conversation yourself! -jmb-]

  1. S. Gonzalez permalink

    Dear Jackie,

    Your thoughts and prayers are better placed on the venezuelan people enduring this regime that violates human rights. The rethoric that the poor are better off with Chavez is not enough an argument for abusing the rights of those (even if a minority) who have different points of views.

    Yes we all deserve simpathy and dignity, but when you are a person elected to power, sworn to serve your country and you use this power to abuse your countrymen in the name of ideology, revolution or whatever you want to call it, you are a traitor and you have no dignity.

    The one thing that the US does poorly when dealing with Latin America is that when understanding of a given situation is lacking the patronizing begins. Your point of view obviously lacks the understanding of the real situation of thousands of suffering venezuelans and asking for their “understanding” of the suffering of Hugo Chavez is really offensive.

    I am very sorry for the suffering of your grand mother and please receive my simpathy. I too have lost family to cancer. But I assure you they deserve much better than serving to justify the Chavez regime.

    Thank you and my best wishes for 2012

  2. Thank you so much for posting. It brings to light some areas where I was not clear in the original post.

    First, I did not mean to imply that I was somehow justifying or defending the Chavez regime. I tried to address this in the point about political prisoners who are suffering from cancer in the Venezuelan prison system, but obviously I did not make this point clearly enough.

    Second, I did not mean to call for people to be understanding of his suffering in order to provide an excuse for his behavior. If anything, I was trying to point out that his need to appear strong is a sign of weakness, and that he seems to be “dealing” with the situation by living in denial.

    Here’s my point: My concern is that we lose some of the moral high ground when we wish a painful death upon someone out of revenge. We are, in effect, stooping to his level. The only difference is that he has the system in place to inflict these things upon hundreds (even thousands) of people, whereas we simply talk about it.

    I meant to include this in the original post, but I forgot… Friedrich Nietzsche said it better than I could: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

    Finally, and most important: I did not mean to imply that my thoughts and prayers are with Chavez instead of the Venezuelan people. But for those who pray, they’re missing the point if they pray for terrible things to happen to leaders–legitimate or not.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I hope I did a better job explaining my perspective this time. I’m sorry for not being clear enough on these important matters the first time around.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: