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Published on July 19th, 2012 | by Harry Evans
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] Hugo Chavez homage © David Shankbone[/caption]   Comparisons abound. From Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt and more recently Francois Mitterand and even fictional President Bartlett in The West Wing, significant illness changes politics. In the past, it was possible to conceal this—most radically in the case of FDR—but this is becoming more and more difficult as leaders become media personalities, and as this media becomes more pervasive than ever before. It is not my purpose here to consider the moral question, rather it is to look at how the 21st century has curtailed the concealment of major illness and the way in which politicians will now need to change the way they approach their illness that does not involve cover-ups. At the 1945 Yalta Conference, where the future of modern Europe was decided, there is a famous photo of Josef Stalin, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The American President, it emerged after his death, was ill with polio. It was only known by a select few that this was the case, but everyone who met him would have known that he was in a wheelchair. However this was not a widely known fact, and the news came as a shock to the world at large. All photos taken of the President were taken of him sitting down. In the case of the Yalta photo, Roosevelt is clearly pictured sitting next to the other leaders. None of them standing. In addition, polio was the disease that killed the President, and the general public would not have seen this as a positive mark on his manifesto. So it was kept secret. This should be contrasted with the situation today. If journalists noticed that David Cameron looked frail at a press conference, or had even so much as a bad cough, this information would be tweeted in two minutes, and an article would be posted about it within 15. Not to mention the numerous YouTube parodies. The 21st century is an information age, where any and all information is considered ready for public consumption. The concealment method no longer works. Nothing shows this better than the case of Kim Jong-Il. In order to minimise his exposure to cameras, the former North Korean leader was kept completely out of the public eye. Of course, this appeared uncharacteristic and so there was much speculation that Kim Jong-il was ill long before it became apparent that he was in a deteriorating state. The secrecy was such that it was not announced until 51 hours after his death that he had died. The concealment strategy did little to strengthen his position in North Korea and weakened his position in the international arena. Instead, President Hugo Chávez is pioneering a new form of politicking whilst afflicted with a disease. Last year, Mr Chávez revealed he had been diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer, only to proclaim he had completely recovered the following autumn. Observing doctors questioned this at the time, citing a requirement for a considerably longer period of time needed before one can claim to be cured. Sure enough, in February the cancer had recurred, and he underwent surgery to rid himself of the tumour. Last week, however, Mr Chávez has again announced himself cured of the disease. With good reason, international onlookers are sceptical about this claim. However, whether the situation is believable or not, what can be examined is Mr Chávez's political response. He has firstly gone to great lengths to be open and honest about having cancer: even if his other claims are exaggerative or hasty, the power of admitting to having a disease with such stigma should not be ignored. Secondly, he monopolised on the large population of Christians in Venezuela by proclaiming the recovery a 'miracle' and maintaining a politics of divine right to drum up support. The last tactic has been to hit the campaign road hard. Since he has been free of cancer, Mr Chávez has been leading passionate rallies and campaigning door-to-door. This is basic electioneering, but for a man who has just recovered from cancer, it looks even better. Mr Chávez has always understood that what matters to the Venezuelan people is that they have a candidate who embodies the revolutionary, nationalistic attitude of Simon Bolivar. It is a popular plot in modern US TV series for the President to die, placing the country in a constitutional crisis. Nobody wants a head of state that could collapse mid-way through their term. Mr Chávez was visibly affected by a long speech at a rally on the 12th July, and with elections in October, it will be interesting to see if there will be a recurrence beforehand, and how this will affect polling. All the gusto in the world will not help the charismatic leader secure another term that he may not survive.

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Chávez triggers healthy debate

Hugo Chavez homage © David Shankbone

 

Comparisons abound. From Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt and more recently Francois Mitterand and even fictional President Bartlett in The West Wing, significant illness changes politics. In the past, it was possible to conceal this—most radically in the case of FDR—but this is becoming more and more difficult as leaders become media personalities, and as this media becomes more pervasive than ever before. It is not my purpose here to consider the moral question, rather it is to look at how the 21st century has curtailed the concealment of major illness and the way in which politicians will now need to change the way they approach their illness that does not involve cover-ups.

At the 1945 Yalta Conference, where the future of modern Europe was decided, there is a famous photo of Josef Stalin, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The American President, it emerged after his death, was ill with polio. It was only known by a select few that this was the case, but everyone who met him would have known that he was in a wheelchair. However this was not a widely known fact, and the news came as a shock to the world at large. All photos taken of the President were taken of him sitting down. In the case of the Yalta photo, Roosevelt is clearly pictured sitting next to the other leaders. None of them standing. In addition, polio was the disease that killed the President, and the general public would not have seen this as a positive mark on his manifesto. So it was kept secret. This should be contrasted with the situation today. If journalists noticed that David Cameron looked frail at a press conference, or had even so much as a bad cough, this information would be tweeted in two minutes, and an article would be posted about it within 15. Not to mention the numerous YouTube parodies. The 21st century is an information age, where any and all information is considered ready for public consumption.

The concealment method no longer works. Nothing shows this better than the case of Kim Jong-Il. In order to minimise his exposure to cameras, the former North Korean leader was kept completely out of the public eye. Of course, this appeared uncharacteristic and so there was much speculation that Kim Jong-il was ill long before it became apparent that he was in a deteriorating state. The secrecy was such that it was not announced until 51 hours after his death that he had died. The concealment strategy did little to strengthen his position in North Korea and weakened his position in the international arena.

Instead, President Hugo Chávez is pioneering a new form of politicking whilst afflicted with a disease. Last year, Mr Chávez revealed he had been diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer, only to proclaim he had completely recovered the following autumn. Observing doctors questioned this at the time, citing a requirement for a considerably longer period of time needed before one can claim to be cured. Sure enough, in February the cancer had recurred, and he underwent surgery to rid himself of the tumour. Last week, however, Mr Chávez has again announced himself cured of the disease.

With good reason, international onlookers are sceptical about this claim. However, whether the situation is believable or not, what can be examined is Mr Chávez’s political response. He has firstly gone to great lengths to be open and honest about having cancer: even if his other claims are exaggerative or hasty, the power of admitting to having a disease with such stigma should not be ignored. Secondly, he monopolised on the large population of Christians in Venezuela by proclaiming the recovery a ‘miracle’ and maintaining a politics of divine right to drum up support. The last tactic has been to hit the campaign road hard. Since he has been free of cancer, Mr Chávez has been leading passionate rallies and campaigning door-to-door. This is basic electioneering, but for a man who has just recovered from cancer, it looks even better. Mr Chávez has always understood that what matters to the Venezuelan people is that they have a candidate who embodies the revolutionary, nationalistic attitude of Simon Bolivar.

It is a popular plot in modern US TV series for the President to die, placing the country in a constitutional crisis. Nobody wants a head of state that could collapse mid-way through their term. Mr Chávez was visibly affected by a long speech at a rally on the 12th July, and with elections in October, it will be interesting to see if there will be a recurrence beforehand, and how this will affect polling. All the gusto in the world will not help the charismatic leader secure another term that he may not survive.

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About the Author

Harry Evans

Harry is a recent Philosophy graduate from the University of York. He is taking a Master’s in European Studies next year at UCL and has a particular interest in Scandinavian politics and economy. His time is currently spent undertaking an internship, researching and writing a history of the University of York Philosophy department. At University, he was editor of the student Philosophy journal, and has been published by the Club of PEP journal. Harry is hoping to make a career in International Relations and Journalism, and writes for Catch21 in this capacity. For more information and updates follow @hevans567 or find him on LinkedIn. You can also read more from this author on their personal blog.



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