“People seem more focused on what they want to happen than what is actually happening,” Cabrera said. “Nobody really knows what’s going on, and in any other country that would be unheard of, but here we’ve simply grown accustomed to the idea.”
The lack of transparency is what has made the Venezuelan case so unique, said Xavier Rodriguez, a political analyst and the director of the legislative watchdog group, Entorno Parlamentario.
Over the last few years, the presidents of Paraguay and Brazil have battled cancer. In those cases, however, they were upfront about their illnesses and delegated power when they were undergoing treatment, Rodriguez said.
Chávez has never let lose of the reins, even when he was under knife, and he has never explicitly named a successor.
“This is not a government used to working as a team,” Rodriguez said. And Chávez’s penchant for keeping a tight grip on power and micromanaging his administration “may be leading to a power struggle within the party,” he added.
For the moment, the country seems unfazed by Chávez’s illness or prolonged absences. Most polls still give him a lead over his chief rival Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, the energetic 39-year-old former governor of Miranda.
In some ways the illness is playing to the president’s advantage, said Schemel. The image of a stricken Chávez has overshadowed many of the problems of his 13-year administration such as crime, inflation and blackouts.
“His illness has hyper-personalized the campaign,” Schemel said. It has made Chávez the center of attention even when he’s been reclusive. “The opposition can’t seem to change the debate or refocus people’s attention on other issues.”
Others find the president’s behavior over the last 12 months troubling. José Albornóz, general secretary of the opposition PPT party, said Chávez’s illness has undermined his claims of solidarity with the poor.
“Many people in this country have had cancer and died at the doors of a local hospital,” Albornóz said. “He’s had the best care in the world — and the difference must be vast. He has the responsibility to tell the country what’s happening.”
The government has good reason to downplay Chávez’s illness. A series of polls show that Capriles would easily beat any of the president’s likely fill-ins: Vice President Elias Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, National Parliament President Diosdado Cabello, or the president’s brother, Barinas Gov. Adán Chávez.
For the ruling PSUV party it’s important for Chávez to win the race, but not necessarily preside the entire six-year term, said Daniel Kerner, the Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group.
“It would probably be easier for Chavismo to manage a succession process after the election,” he wrote. “First, because the typically divided opposition would be weakened and fractured after an electoral defeat, and secondly, Chavismo would have more control over managing how and when new elections would be called.”
Hardcore Chávez supporters dismiss succession talk. José Salazar, a community organizer in the state of Monágas, traveled seven hours to watch Chávez kick off his campaign. He said that Chávez’s illness has only made the people appreciate him more.
“The real revolutionaries are 100 percent optimistic that Chávez will continue being our president,” he said. “I think he’ll still be in power in 2020.”