Columnist Tweaks Venezuela’s Leader

| Monday, April 9th, 2012 | No Comments »

Article originally appeared in the Wall Street JournalBY JOSE DE CORDOBA

CARACAS—When Nelson Bocaranda tweets, people in Venezuela—and Wall Street—listen.

Last June, the columnist broke the news that President Hugo Chávez had undergone cancer surgery in Cuba. After days of silence from the Comandante Presidente, a shaken Mr. Chávez appeared on television from Havana, admitting to having cancer.

Then in February, the hyperkinetic, opposition-leaning journalist broke the news that Mr. Chávez’s cancer was back and that doctors in Havana would operate to remove a new tumor. Heated government denials were followed by the admission that Mr. Bocaranda was right.

That time, Mr. Bocaranda delivered the news on Twitter, where he has 587,000 followers. A number of them are investors who have bought up Venezuelan bonds on the premise that Mr. Chávez’s exit would lead to a more balanced and foreign-investor friendly economy.

“He’s required reading for people interested in investing in Venezuela,” says Russell Dallen Jr., director of investment bank Caracas Capital Markets.

Mr. Chávez arrived in Havana early Sunday morning for another round of radiation therapy. Before leaving Caracas, he told Venezuelans in a nationally broadcast address he had faith that Jesus Christ would repeat a miracle and allow him to continue living.

The government has never disclosed the type of cancer that afflicts the president—critical information ahead of presidential elections in October, when Mr. Chávez will face a united opposition.

Officials say only Mr. Chávez can speak about his condition. The president has gone from declaring himself cancer-free to entrusting his health to God, the Virgin Mary and the spirit of the late Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who he says will help him rule Venezuela until at least 2030.

That makes Mr. Bocaranda, who publishes a twice-weekly column called Runrunes, or “Murmurs,” the best source of information on the president’s illness, and a headache for the government. He also has a radio show and a website.

“Bocaranda is the unofficial minister of information, since the official minister of information doesn’t have any information,” says Boris Segura, an analyst at Nomura Securities in New York. “It’s a throwback to Soviet days.”

Mr. Chávez has refused treatment in Venezuela, and Brazil, which boasts a world-class cancer hospital, and opted for Cuba’s budget-strained healthy system, where Havana keeps his treatment secret.

Last week, Mr. Bocaranda said Mr. Chávez had decided to go for treatment to Brazil, where he has a standing invitation from President Dilma Rousseff, herself a cancer survivor. But Mr. Bocaranda says Mr. Chávez changed his mind at the last minute.

“He couldn’t face Fidel Castro” if he had gone to Brazil, Mr. Bocaranda says, because that would embarrass the Cuban leader after Mr. Chávez heaped praise on Cuba’s doctors, thousands of whom man Venezuela’s medical system. “He’s thrown in the towel,” he says. “The family is sure this will kill him.”

The information vacuum has made Venezuela a nation of amateur oncologists. Everyone from taxi drivers to waiters discuss the later rumor about Mr. Chávez’s prognosis.

Entering a Caracas steakhouse, Mr. Bocaranda wades through a tide of admirers. They all want to know how Mr. Chávez is doing. “Sorry, no oncology after 8 p.m.,” he jokes.

Mr. Bocaranda is less popular among government officials. Some have had to confirm his reports after denying them. In February, after Mr. Bocaranda tweated that Mr. Chávez’ tumor had reappeared, government top brass quickly attacked.

“Bocaranda has a sick soul,” Diosdado Cabello, president of the congress and a contender to succeed Mr. Chávez, said on his Twitter account.

Information minister Andrés Izarra was as scathing. The “rumors” of Mr. Chávez’s cancer are part of “a dirty war” waged by “scoundrels,” tweeted.

Two days after Mr. Bocaranda’s tweets, Mr. Chávez appeared on television touring a factory site. Mr. Bocaranda, who was in Miami, had a moment of panic as Mr. Chávez’ image flickered on the screen.

“I saw Chávez looking in perfect health,” says Mr. Bocaranda, who wondered whether his sources had failed him—or set him up.

But then Mr. Chávez confirmed he was returning to Cuba to have a new growth removed.

Neither Mr. Cabello nor Mr. Izarra answered emails and telephone calls requesting comment.

Recently, Mr. Bocaranda wrote that Mr. Chávez, in Havana for treatment, met briefly with Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican and Mr. Chávez deny the meeting. Mr. Bocaranda sticks to his guns.

“It was at the Palace of the Revolution,” wrote Mr. Bocaranda. “The agreement was no photos and the story would be denied by all. Chávez was in a small room next to the chamber where Raúl Castro was with the pope. He came in, knelt, and asked for his blessing. It was less than five minutes.”

Many Venezuelans believe Mr. Chávez is seriously ill, and will drop out of the presidential race. But a surprising number believe the president’s cancer is a political ploy to earn sympathy votes.

“I think this could be a diabolical game,” said an opposition candidate in an interview.

Either way, most believe Mr. Bocaranda has privileged information from within the government. “I read him every day,” says a former Venezuelan government official under Mr. Chávez. “I don’t know how he does it, but four out of five times, he hits it out of the park.”

Mr. Bocaranda says that lately his government sources have multiplied. “The secret is to maintain the confidentiality of the source at all costs,” he says.

Still, Mr. Bocaranda, who drives a 10-year-old armored Honda sedan, says he sometimes fears government retaliation.

The columnist has long been embarrassing the Chávez government. Four years ago, he gave out the address of a house where he said the government was sheltering a Colombian guerrilla chief.

Mr. Izarra, the communications minister, labeled him the “Jackal of Information.” Mr. Bocaranda gleefully made the insult his own, using it as an email address where informants can send tips.

In the small Andean town where he was born, Mr. Bocaranda’s grandfather used to put the family radio on a table fronting the street so that passersby could hear the U.S. government’s Voice of America show. He considers himself the heir of muckraking Washington columns of yore, like Drew Pearson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

“The gossip in my column is not gossip, its news,” he says.

As he puttered around in his comfortable house outside Caracas recently, cell phones rang constantly. Continuous beeps signaled new emails dropping into his inbox. A source called him with information about a fraud concerning a government-run ferry.

“Great stuff! Great stuff! I’ll write it up,” said Mr. Bocaranda excitedly.

He frequently changes chips on his telephones. “This one is good, and so is this one,” he says, signaling to two of his cell phones. “That other line is being tapped.” The calls are short. “Less than three minutes, to make it tough for them to listen in on the call,” he says.

He checks en email exchange that one of his many informants sprinkled throughout the Venezuelan government has forwarded to him.

In the email, a well known British journalist and historian, who is a fan of Chávez, commiserates about the president’s health with a Venezuelan diplomat. “Yes, things look bad wherever we look, and our Comandante made a rather poor stab in Havana pretending he was alright and that all would be well,” writes the journalist, recounting his vacation in Morocco where, he writes, there is “no sign, thank goodness, of that Arab spring jazz.”

The diplomat shares his British friend’s pessimism. “I am worried…this time the opposition is better organized than before…and I am afraid we don’t have a plan B, (could you imagine Diosdado presidente?)”

The email exchange may one day come out as an item in his column, says Mr. Bocaranda. But for now, he adds, “the urgent takes precedence over the important.”

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