The orchestra played and loyal lawmakers erupted in adulatory applause as Hugo Chavez invoked Fidel Castro and Jesus Christ as his revolutionary role models.
His right hand raised, the fiery Venezuelan leader echoed the famous call to arms of his Cuban mentor. “Fatherland, socialism or death,” he proclaimed, then added with a typical flourish: “I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history.” That was six years ago as “El Commandante” was sworn in for his third term as president and blew kisses to rose petal-tossing crowds when he returned in an open-topped car to his palace to watch a military parade.
On Thursday, the ideologue – who has used his country’s oil riches to bankroll left-wing bed-fellows across Latin America, forged a cosy alliance with Iran and assailed the US from its back yard – is due to be celebrating his next inauguration.
But there will be no joyous scenes. For this weekend, he is lying close to death in a Cuban hospital bed, quite possibly being kept alive on a ventilator, suffering from respiratory problems and a severe lung infection after his fourth round of surgery in 18 months for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer.
His illness has already sparked a constitutional crisis in Venezuela, where he won a hotly-contested election in October but has not yet started a new term. His death would send shock waves across the region and could endanger the survival of Cuba’s communist regime which is dependent on his largesse for cheap oil.
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