Dispatch

Sneaking in the Back Door

Did Hugo Chávez quietly slip back into Venezuela to die?

CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's surprise return to his country on Feb. 18 still leaves Katiana Perez sputtering in disbelief. "I can't believe he's back, that he is alive and well," says Perez, a 30-year-old beautician, choking back her tears. "He is our leader, our president, our father. We can all rest easier now that he's home."

She's not alone in her disbelief.

Javier Rojas woke up Monday morning when a friend called to tell him of El Comandante's return. An unemployed 43-year-old computer technician, Rojas didn't vote for Chávez in the October presidential election and blames the president's policies for many of the country's woes. "The nightmare continues," he says. "How much longer do we have to suffer this charade that he's in control? How much longer are they going to lie to us about his condition?"

Chávez's stealthy return to the country, which surprised even his cabinet and closest advisors, is yet another unexpected twist in Venezuela's unfolding political drama. Flying from Cuba, where he had been in seclusion for two months and seven days after undergoing his fourth operation for cancer, Chávez arrived at Caracas's Simón Bolívar International Airport at 2:30 a.m. Unlike previous arrivals and departures, this homecoming wasn't televised, nor were any photos released.

According to El Universal, Chávez was sedated before takeoff, and the plane flew at a low altitude to avoid compromising his delicate health and an ongoing respiratory problem. Upon his return, he was taken to the military hospital in Caracas. When he was safely in his room, three messages went out on his Twitter account. Besides thanking Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Raúl Castro for their support, Chávez (or someone in his retinue) tweeted, "We have arrived again to Venezuela. Thank God. Thanks to my beloved country. Here we will continue treatment."

Celebrations by the president's supporters began almost immediately in Caracas and other major cities, stoked by the state media machine, which called on the president's backers to take to the streets. The state television station flashed the headline, "He's returned!"

Soon crowds had gathered outside the military hospital and Plaza Bolívar in the capital's center, where they shouted slogans, danced, and sang. A nurse told state television that she had seen Chávez walk into the hospital unaided, eschewing a gurney or wheelchair. That claim was immediately picked up and repeated by government officials.

But discrepancies immediately cropped up. As opposition politicians noted, if Chávez was able to walk into the hospital, why did he disappear from sight? And after the three initial tweets, why was there was nothing more from the ailing leader and no video footage or photos released?

"Cuba or Venezuela, we still don't know what is happening," says Rojas.

Analysts say there are three possible scenarios in the wake of Chávez's return. The first scenario -- which sees the president getting better and resuming his duties -- is also considered the most unlikely. The second is that Chávez will be sworn in for his fourth term of office and then promptly resign in favor of his handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Such a move would give legitimacy to Maduro and help him in any subsequent presidential election, which would have to be scheduled within 30 days of Chávez's stepping down.

The third scenario is the darkest: that Chávez will die without being sworn in. Most observers are leaning toward the second or third scenario. "We still expect to see elections before the end of the year," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group.

Chávez has never indicated what kind of cancer he is fighting or what the prognosis is. A tumor was discovered in June 2011 and subsequently removed. Since then, he has undergone three more operations in addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During last year's presidential campaign, he repeatedly assured voters that he was cancer-free, even though he often appeared sick and tired during his infrequent campaign swings. He won reelection with about 55 percent of the vote. His current term ends in 2019, but few Venezuelans, if any now, think he'll see this term out.

Chávez's return came a few days after the release of four photos, the first proof since Dec. 9 that he is still alive. Those four photos created more questions than they answered as two of the four seemed to have different backgrounds, suggesting that they had been Photoshopped. On the defensive, the government then came out with a more detailed medical report, admitting that Chávez had difficulty speaking as he had undergone a tracheotomy.

Upping the ante, Venezuelan students started protesting in front of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, calling for a full accounting of Chávez's health and an end to Havana's interference in Venezuela's internal affairs. Coupled with the pope's surprise resignation for health reasons, pressure has begun to build on the government to give more details.

To maintain his position, Chávez needs to demonstrate "mobility, speech, and to take the oath of office," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. "If that occurs, Chávez then buys time to recover and can either govern or oversee a transition in which he plays a role rallying supporters, even if only symbolically."

Meanwhile, Chávez has yet to be sworn in for his fourth term of office. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, that should have occurred on Jan. 10 -- but the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that he could be sworn in at a later date. Now that he's back in country, the opposition -- and even the Catholic Church -- is calling for his swearing-in.

Allies like China, which have signed new deals with Maduro in recent days, are also eager for Chávez to be sworn in to avoid possible contract abrogations if Chávez were to die before fulfilling his legal obligations.

Still, any ceremony would be fraught with problems, especially as it would need to be televised, which would expose the president's real condition and likely raise further concerns about his ability to be president. That seems like something Maduro and the Chavistas seem unwilling to do right now. "They could tell people that Chávez was sworn in during a private ceremony, but that might be difficult,'' says Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group.

Still, Chávez's return should provide a welcome respite for Maduro, who has gotten off to a rocky start and is still recovering politically from a currency devaluation Feb. 8 that shaved a third of the value off the bolívar and that is sure to spur inflation.

The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader has been hard-pressed to explain why the government needed to devalue the currency when oil prices remain above $100 a barrel. To press its point, the government began floating commercials on the state television station, explaining that the devaluation would help the country rebalance its economy and reduce the crippling scarcity of staple goods.

Besides the devaluation, Maduro's only other initiative has been to press for an investigation of Venezuela's largest opposition party, First Justice, for alleged corruption. A proposal to investigate the party passed in the National Assembly but not before opposition legislators skewered Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela for their own wrongdoings.

"There is no doubt that Maduro isn't Chávez,'' says Tinker Salas, the Pomona College professor. "There is only one Chávez. With Chávez in the country, the attention now turns to him and less so to Maduro."

That could give Maduro time to grow into the job while Chávez gives Maduro his backing. But for a growing number of Venezuelans like Rojas, the president's return is only prolonging the suffering.

"Great, Chávez is here," he says. "But there is no sugar, no cornmeal, no gas. Take a guess what I prefer."

GERALDO CASO/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Hostage for a Day

How I became a bargaining chip in Yemen’s tribal maze.

AMRAN PROVINCE, Yemen — I knew we should have opted to take an older, cheaper car. As the tribesmen running the checkpoint demanded that we pull over, I cursed myself for letting my misgivings slide. I'd taken the road before -- the split-second pause before getting the go-ahead from the armed locals who run the informal roadblocks dotting the roads running through the villages north of Sanaa may have raised my blood pressure, but I had never had any issues. Until now.

Confusion quickly ensued. The guys running the checkpoint -- a disorganized group of about a dozen armed, but generally disheveled, tribesmen in their late twenties -- seemed split on what to do. Most just wanted to let us pass, one seemed intent on stealing my friend's car, and a few seemed convinced I was an Iranian spy. After about 15 minutes, I realized that revealing my identity as an American journalist was probably the best of a slate of bad options.

Frantic arguments continued. Growing increasingly nervous, I pulled out what I knew would be the trump card, threatening to bring their sheikh into the matter. As I dialed the number for a close associate of the sheikh, a longtime friend, I vainly hoped they'd realize that it wasn't worth troubling one of Yemen's most powerful men with what was, until that point, a rather minor issue.

It didn't work out that way. Dragging the sheikh into it turned out to be exactly what the tribesmen wanted: They now agreed that I was indeed an American journalist rather than an Iranian spy, and further decided that I would be an excellent bargaining chip in their lingering dispute with the central government.

"You'll stay until the government compensates us for what we lost in the war in Hasaba," I was told. I had come here to get a better idea of the tenuous state of things in the tribal areas north of Sanaa. Instead, I had become a hostage of them.

My kidnapping -- which occurred, ironically, on the second anniversary of the start of Yemen's revolution -- had its roots in the wounds opened up by that revolt, which remain unhealed to this day. In May 2011, the uprising against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally sparked the urban warfare that many feared was inevitable. A day after Saleh refused to sign an internationally backed power transfer agreement, fighting erupted between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the country's most powerful tribal leaders. Despite the seeming asymmetry, the tribal forces put up a hell of a fight in the ensuing weeks, seizing control of a number of government ministries as their scores of kinsmen -- including the guys who kidnapped me -- descended from north of the capital to join.

A year and a half after the sporadic battles ended, Hasaba, the neighborhood where the fighting was concentrated, still bears resemblance to civil war-era Beirut. Government assurances of compensation for those who were affected by the fighting, it seems, have yet to come to fruition. I've largely associated all of this with the bombed-out buildings in the area that was once the epicenter of the fighting. But the ripple effects of the fighting extend for miles: The guys that kidnapped me, it turned out, were still bitter over the loss of their car, which was destroyed when they traveled to Sanaa to join in the battle. The Hasaba war of May 2011, oddly enough, bore indirect responsibility for my time as a hostage in February 2013.

Regaining my composure, I called my friend, who told me to pass the phone to my kidnappers. However, I soon lost this vital link to the outside world: About three minutes in, my phone ran out of credit. Whether as a result of the conversation or their independent decision, the tribesmen decided to take me to meet a local military official in a location that, unfortunately, was outside of my cell phone carrier's coverage. After remaining calm as I spent what felt like an eternity, but was probably about 15 minutes, screaming about my lack of service, the army guy, who had been in contact with my friend, passed me his phone.

The sheikh, my friend relayed, was currently in a meeting, but he gave his assurance that I'd be released in a few hours. Until then, the military official would host me at his home -- a euphemism, I soon discovered, for the fact that I'd spend the evening chewing qat with half the village, my kidnappers included. It took about an hour for me to realize that there was something kind of odd about a military officer mediating a kidnapping.

I settled in, as relaxed as I was ever going to get given the circumstances. My kidnappers were rather welcoming, stressing that they saw me as a guest rather than a hostage. I didn't have cell coverage, but my portable modem worked, which allowed me to keep tabs on my Google news feeds to make sure news of my predicament hadn't hit the media. Until the publication of this article, I don't believe it has.

For the next two hours, my kidnappers and their kinsmen issued a litany of complaints and requests in the hopes that I'd pass them on to my contacts when I got back to Sanaa. Gas, they grumbled, is too expensive and often difficult to find. Jobs are scarce, they said, and government services are nearly absent.

"Why don't foreign businesses and [humanitarian] organizations come here?" one tribesman asked, prompting the room to erupt in claims of the area's mineral wealth and a cataloguing of the inadequacies in education and health care. The entire district, apparently, lacks a single hospital.

"Kidnapping an American journalist might not be the best way to get foreigners to come here," I noted in English, prompting my Yemeni friend I was traveling with -- a hostage by association -- to burst out laughing, forcing us to translate what I said to the confused tribesmen, most of whom laughed as well. Generally speaking, it wasn't too different from the hundreds of social gatherings I've attended in Yemen that didn't involve me being held against my will: I may have been inconvenienced, but I certainly wasn't in any danger.

Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased when the call came through with the news that a resolution had been reached. My release was guaranteed, and the army officer would travel to Sanaa in the coming days to discuss compensation there.

Still, my kidnappers' problem was far from solved. They didn't make much of an effort to hide their disappointment. In the end, their demands were simply forced up the chain of command -- a far cry from their hope of getting urgent government attention.

"If you called the government, I would have gotten my money," one vented. My half-hearted attempt to stifle a laugh failed miserably.

"My brother, how long have you been a Yemeni?" I retorted, prompting a few in the room to erupt in laughter. "If we left this in the government's hands, I'd be married from your village with two kids by the time I got out."

Most in the room nodded their agreement. It's a fact of life in Yemen: When it comes with dealing with an important issue, it's best to ignore the question of whom you should trust, and instead defer to whoever will actually be able to get things done. I had full faith that my friend's connections would get me out as quickly, quietly, and as safely as possible. More conventional ways of dealing with the issue never crossed my mind.

I said goodbye to my erstwhile captors, who sent me on my way, urging me to call to confirm my safety as soon as I returned to Sanaa. The ordeal was over.

In a way, what happened to me was an odd testament to the resilience of the informal conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in Yemeni society. Everything transpired without the involvement or knowledge of Yemen's government or, for that matter, my country's embassy -- "tribalism" caused the problem, and a few hours later, it provided the solution.

That's not to say, of course, that the rather painless resolution of my kidnapping means that all's well here. A diverse group of Yemenis may have taken to the streets in 2011, but when you asked those demonstrating what they wanted, most of them ended up saying the same thing. "Dawla madania," they repeated, "a civil state." In English or Arabic, they're rather flexible words -- they could suggest a genuine attachment to  secular ideals, or nothing more than political posturing.

Staring blankly at revolutionary commemorations as I sat as a guest-hostage in a random village 60 miles north of Sanaa waiting for a politician-sheikh to pacify his irate tribesmen, efforts to project ideology or politics onto the upheaval in Yemen seemed to miss the point. For most citizens, having a "civil state," ultimately, just means having a government that actually works.

"Don't blame me, blame the people in Sanaa," one of my kidnappers told me, pushing back at my tongue-in-cheek suggestion, at one point, that he apologize for wasting so much of my time. "This wouldn't have happened if the government did what it was supposed to do."

I take issue with his means of dealing with the problem. But still, I have to admit -- the guy has a point.

AFP/Getty Images