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Chávez heads to Cuba leaving health questions at home

As he closed his presidential campaign two months ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sang and danced in the driving rain, vowing to lead the oil-rich nation for another six years.

On Monday morning — as he boarded the presidential jet to Cuba to undergo a fourth round of surgery for recurring cancer — some were wondering if the ailing leader had kept the nation in the dark to win a fourth term.

Chávez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, but six months ago, before launching his reelection bid, he said he’d been cured.

Even so, he avoided the limelight for much of the election cycle, said Oswaldo Ramírez, the director of ORC Consultores, a Caracas-based political consulting firm. During the first 90 days of the campaign, he made just 20 appearances — this from a man who, during healthier times, would appear on TV four times a day, Ramírez said. Other campaign events were simply canceled or cut short.

“It’s pretty clear he was still sick at the time, but his campaign worked to keep it out of the public eye,” Ramírez speculated. “Like Shakespeare said, you could tell that something smelled in Denmark.”

Chávez, 58, traveled to Cuba early Monday where he will undergo another round of surgery for an undisclosed form of cancer.

Wearing a blue and white track suit, he hugged cabinet members on the tarmac and yelled “Hasta la Vida Siempre” before boarding the presidential aircraft. He was received in Havana by Cuban leader Raúl Castro in the pre-dawn hours. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa flew to Havana to visit with him later in the day.

The administration has not said when the surgery will take place or the length of the the recovery. But on Saturday, Chávez suggested he might not be able to take power Jan. 10, and talked about a successor for the first time since taking office in 1999. In the televised speech, he asked the country to rally behind Vice President Nicolás Maduro, his long-time foreign minister who seen to have strong ties with Cuba.

But Chávez also tried to squelch rumors that he’d mislead the nation about his health.

“I insisted on doing all the medical tests before registering as a candidate,” he said Saturday. “All the results were favorable. If there had been a negative report in those tests, rest assured that I would not have registered or taken on being a presidential candidate.”

He said exams immediately after the elections also showed him to be in good health. But he also admitted he was in pain and had to returned Venezuela on Friday against doctor’s recommendations.

Stratfor, the U.S.-based intelligence firm, said Chávez’s rapid deterioration in the wake of the elections “makes it very likely that he was delaying treatment to give the appearance of a recovery.”

“By holding out through the election, Chávez has proved that the opposition in Venezuela remains less popular than himself,” the organization wrote. “His successor inherits that win against a demoralized opposition.”

What is clear is that Chávez’s Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, needed him. According to polls, no other administration figure could have beaten opposition candidate and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles in the October presidential race.

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.”