CARACAS (Reuters) - In September, he played baseball in the midday sun. In October, he rapped on live TV. In November, he was out jogging with military cadets, and this month he hosted a Latin American summit.
Despite cancer, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is sparing no effort or expense to make it clear to supporters and detractors alike that he is ready to take on and win the toughest re-election campaign of his 13 years in power.
Details about the socialist leader’s condition have remained a closely guarded secret since he appeared, looking pallid and shocked, on TV in June from Havana to declare he had undergone surgery to remove a large tumor from his pelvis.
The 57-year-old Chavez, who has no clear successor, says he has been completely cured after four chemotherapy sessions, and his recovery before the cameras has been notable.
His face still looks swollen from the treatment, but his hair has begun to grow back. Still, medical experts say it is too soon for him to claim he has beaten the cancer, and rumors about his health persist.
Six months later, one thing is certain: the campaign for next October’s presidential election will be unlike any the normally garrulous, man-of-the-people Chavez has fought before.
Where once he would wade into crowds during lengthy cross-country tours, his medical team is sure to try to keep him on a tighter rein. He will have to make more of his television appearances, which at up to 3 or 4 hours are already getting longer again, though not yet back to the intensity of his pre-cancer days.
“The doctors tell me, ‘Chavez, take it slowly because you’re going too fast.’ The cancer I have has many causes, one of which is stress,” he said last week at the launch of one of the social programs that provide a cornerstone of his support.
Surveys by local pollsters Hinterlaces and Consultores 21 say six in 10 Venezuelans believe Chavez is in full recovery. That will cheer the key members of his inner circle, who are determined to keep the prospect of a weakened candidate far from the public’s mind.
“Right now Chavez is the favorite. But the illness is still there and could appear at any moment, which would have a high political cost,” said Oscar Schemel of Hinterlaces.
“For that reason, the propaganda apparatus must keep him active and vigorous throughout the whole election campaign.”
Chavez’s sickness has revitalized his popularity with his supporters, including those beginning to grow weary of rampant crime, corruption, lack of jobs and Latin America’s highest inflation rate.
Many analysts expect the “sympathy bounce” to be transitory, but say the president is using it to push an image of renewal and reflection that could help bring round more moderate but disenchanted “Chavistas”.
“Chavez’s goal is to reconquer, to win the heart again of a sector of the population that is relatively unhappy with the government, but has still not decided to vote for the opposition,” said Nicmer Evans, professor of political analysis at the Central University of Venezuela UCV.L.
While the opposition has yet to pick a unity candidate to face the former soldier, most opinion polls forecast a close-run race at the October 7 election.
Chavez hopes to tip the scales in his favor through a big increase in state spending on his signature social programs for the poor, while also putting to work the formidable national electoral machinery of his ruling Socialist Party.
“Two halves are equal in mathematics, but that is not necessarily the case in politics,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of local think-tank Datanalisis. “In politics, the half that has power, resources, institutional control and hegemony over communication becomes the stronger half.”
Chavez is stoking fears among his base that an opposition victory would spell an end to his pro-poor programs and the collapse of a nation where the military, government and state oil company have all sworn loyalty to his socialist project.
“The bourgeoisie pretend they are coming to govern the country, but they can’t come. They won’t come. It would be chaos. The hecatomb,” the ever-dramatic leader said.
Chavez’s reluctance to give more details about his condition has fed speculation worldwide. An email virus with the title ‘Death of Hugo Chavez’ circulated on markets this month, making holders of Venezuelan widely-traded bonds sit up.
“Doubt remains,” said Alejandro Arreaza, an analyst at Barclays Capital in New York. “The government has minimized the amount of information made public (about his health), and part of the political game is to show him as strong as possible.”
A senior source in Chavez’s Socialist Party told Reuters there was “a lot of concern” about his condition. Among militant grassroots supporters, enthusiasm about his apparently robust recovery is tinged with uncertainty.
The handful of opposition leaders who will contest a primary poll in February to decide who will face Chavez in October have been loath to talk publicly about his health - beyond saying they want him fit so they can beat him in a fair fight.
Privately, they believe Chavez is weaker than he makes out.
“They said there was no metastasis, then that he was cured, so why don’t they explain what there was?” asked one opposition official. “If they’re keeping quiet, it is for a reason.”
Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Kieran Murray