Could Hugo Chávez already be dead? We have reasons to doubt

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Guillermo Cochez, until recently Panama’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, has been giving interviews to a variety of media outlets saying that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is dead.

Chávez went to Cuba in December for cancer surgery and was flown back to Venezuela in the middle of the night on February 18. Information about his health has been largely limited to statements from the Venezuelan authorities, and Cochez claims in this interview with CNN Chile that the Venezuelan leader has in fact been brain-dead since December 30 or 31 (video in Spanish, at 0:54).

He was flown back to Venezuela, Cochez claims, because the Cuban authorities didn’t want him to be disconnected from life-support while in the country. In an interview with La Estrella (Spanish), a Panamanian newspaper, Cochez says that the president’s life-support was switched off four days ago on the orders of his daughters. He would not reveal his sources, but claimed that they are at senior levels in the government, not the opposition.

Cochez, who was dismissed from his post in January after criticizing the OAS for failing to be tougher on Venezuela, has made such claims before. In early January, he told La Estrella that Chávez’s condition was worse than the authorities were admitting. But there is at least one reason to doubt his latest claim.

In the above video, at around 1:30, Cochez says that a photo of Chávez flanked by his daughters, which was released to the press earlier this month, is misleading. “This is a person who had already lost 80 or 90 pounds [and yet] he was very plump, full of vitality… his daughters’ faces don’t correspond to reality, one of them has undergone plastic surgery.” In other words, Cochez seems to be suggesting, the picture was staged long before it was supposedly taken.

Hugo Chávez with his daughters, holding a copy of Granma.
Hugo Chávez with his daughters, holding a copy of Granma.
Image: Venezolana de Televisión

There is something inconsistent about this claim. In the above picture, Chávez is seen smiling with his daughters and reading a copy of the Cuban newspaper Granma. The issue he is holding was published on Feb. 14 (you can compare the picture above with the front and back pages archived on Granma’s web site). There are several more such photos. It’s conceivable—though it would be remarkably gruesome—that Chávez was indeed brain-dead when these pictures were taken, and his inert body was somehow posed for the shots. And it is certainly strange that no other photos have been released, nor any video which would show the president clearly conscious. But as Cochez himself says, a man who had been brain-dead for several weeks might not look quite as hale and hearty as this.

We have not yet reached Cochez for a comment, but we will attempt to do so.

Update (9.35 p.m. ET): Adam Clark Estes at our sister publication, the Atlantic Wire, is similarly skeptical.