Autumn of the Patriarchs

A dictator’s death throes are always a form of theater, featuring ecstatic masses and would-be successors fighting for political survival and preservation of privileges. That is why Venezuelan officials stage-managed Hugo Chávez’s illness and eventual death, even suggesting near the end that he was still “walking and exercising.”

MADRID – “How difficult it is to die!” Francisco Franco is reputed to have exclaimed on his deathbed. Death, it seems, is always particularly difficult for autocrats to manage, even when they succeed in dying of natural causes.

A dictator’s death throes are always a form of theater, featuring ecstatic masses, would-be successors fighting for political survival, and, behind the scenes, the dictator’s coterie locked in efforts to extend the life of their patriarch until they can secure their privileges. Franco’s son-in-law, who was also the family doctor, kept the dying despot on life-support machines for more than a month.

It is not exactly clear how long Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was actually dead before his passing was officially announced. Buying time to secure their own political future, Venezuelan officials carefully stage-managed Chávez’s illness and eventual death, even suggesting near the end, while he was undergoing complex and agonizing cancer treatments, that he was still “walking and exercising.” The information vacuum was reminiscent of the secrecy surrounding the deaths of Stalin and Mao, and the practice in the Ottoman empire of keeping the sultan’s death a secret for weeks until the succession was settled.

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