CARACAS -- A year ago Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez became the hemisphere’s most famous cancer patient when he told a stunned nation that doctors in Cuba had removed a baseball-sized tumor from his pelvis.
Since that June 30, 2011 announcement, Chávez has traveled to Havana more than a dozen times for treatment, lost his hair, grown it back, had a relapse, begged God for his life on national TV and kept this nation on tenterhooks.
The man who used to taunt rivals about staying in power until 2031 seemed desperate to survive until the Oct. 7 presidential election.
But now Chávez, 57, claims he’s in remission and has been stepping up his public appearances. No one knows how long this comeback may last, but it’s breathing life into the perception that he’s building steam as the race progresses.
A few hours after Chávez officially launched his fourth presidential campaign on June 11 with a song, a dance and a marathon speech, Carlos González was marveling at the strength of El Comandante.
“He’s going to destroy the opposition,” said González, a construction worker from the state of Guárico. “No sick man gives a three-hour speech.”
Chávez admits it has been a rough year. In the last 12 months he has spent more than 100 days in Cuba getting treatment. And he had a relapse within eight months of his initial diagnosis — a sign that oncologists agree is ominous.
But Chávez said the rumors about the severity of his cancer are unfounded and part of a destabilization campaign by the opposition.
At the rally, he rattled off a list of dire predictions.
“They said Chávez only had a few days left to live, that Chávez is dying in Havana, that he’ll never come back, that Chávez is in a wheel chair, that he won’t be able run for office, that they’re looking for a successor,” he said. “But here I am, in front of you.”
On June 9, he said a new round of tests show he’s in remission. But few beyond the president’s inner circle know the extent of his illness. The administration has never said what kind of cancer he has or what organs might be affected.
The secrecy has given rise to a cottage industry of prognosticators. Doctors who have been following his case say his symptoms are consistent with a form of sarcoma that may be resistant to treatment. Last month, U.S. veteran reporter Dan Rather, citing an anonymous source, said that Chávez was unlikely to survive to the election.
But such dire predictions have only served to distract the opposition, which is running behind in most surveys, and firm up Chávez’s base, said Oscar Schemel of the Hinterlaces polling firm.
“The opposition has gotten trapped in the president’s pelvis,” he said. “And I think all these gloomy analyses are going to fall short.”
A recent study by the IVAD polling firm found that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans think Chávez is recovering.
But a few energetic presidential performances shouldn’t obscure the last 12 months of grim news, said Saul Cabrera with Consultores 21.
The fact that Chávez has never come clean about his condition is worrisome, he said. And the relapse can’t be ignored. In addition, the usually gregarious and omnipresent president spends weeks hidden from public view and, when he does appear, it’s usually under tightly controlled conditions.