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A year after revealing he has cancer, Chávez still wants to shape Venezuela’s future

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.

“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.”