And the president’s vigorous, although sporadic, appearances seemed to put the nation at ease. On the eve of the elections, polls found that 70 percent of the public thought Chávez had beaten the disease, and he won the election with an 11-point advantage.
The renewed health fears come as the nation is gearing up for regional elections on Sunday that will give the opposition a chance to show its resilience. The opposition holds seven of 23 governor’s posts and is hoping to hold the line.
But analysts said Chávez’s sudden exit could lead to a massive turnout of his supporters in a show of solidarity for their ailing leader.
“The president’s health is, once again, monopolizing the agenda,” said Carmen Beatriz Fernández with DataStrategia, a Caracas-based political consulting firm. “Regional elections, which did have a regional dynamic and were focused on regional issues, have become a national event.”
On Monday, Maduro called on the nation to pray for Chávez and also vote en mass to sweep the governors’ races.
“Dear compatriots, we must mobilize and accompany the president with our prayers and actions,” he said in a statement. “We’re going to be loyal to Hugo Chávez.”
Doctors say the nature of cancer is unpredictable, and patients can go into remission for months or years at a time. But the secrecy surrounding the president’s health has fueled speculation and conspiracies.
Venezuela’s presidential elections were originally scheduled to take place this month. But in September of last year, the National Electoral Council moved them up to October. Fernández said that, in retrospect, that decision may have had to do with the president’s health.
“It’s clear now that the president has been lying to the nation,” she said. “The timing of the election, we can now see more clearly, was due to the illness.”
After having a baseball-sized tumor removed from his pelvis in June 2011 and undergoing treatment, Chávez relapsed eight months later. After more surgery and radiation therapy, he told supporters he was cancer-free again in July.
The administration has never said what type of cancer Chávez has, or what organs might be affected, but oncologists have said that his symptoms are consistent with a soft-tissue sarcoma — a variety that is often resistant to treatment.
But everything surrounding the president’s health is a mystery, said Ramírez with ORC. There are those who still speculate that the disease is some sort of ploy, designed to pull at the heart strings and mobilize voters on the eve of elections.
“This is like a puzzle with a thousand pieces,” Ramírez said, “but we can only see 200 of them.”