CARACAS, Venezuela – With less than six months left until Election Day, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has hardly hit the campaign trail. Instead, he has been consumed with his fight against cancer, repeatedly traveling to Cuba for treatment and publicly vowing to defeat his illness.
While cancer would end the presidential ambitions of many politicians, Chavez's struggle against the disease has in fact become his main rallying cry. Cancer could serve as a political asset if his health holds through the October vote, and that's the big "if" hanging over Venezuelan politics.
Last week, Chavez offered his starkest outlook yet as he wept while holding hands with his parents at a Mass and then pleaded to Jesus Christ to give him more life.
"Give me your crown, Christ," Chavez said in live footage broadcast nationwide. "Give me your cross, 100 crosses. I'll carry it, but give me life because there are still things left for me to do for these people and for this homeland. Don't take me away yet."
Chavez said later that he has faith in a "miracle" as he undergoes radiation therapy in Cuba following two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic area.
So far, what appears to be a serious life-or-death crisis hasn't dented his political support. To the contrary, one recent poll showed Chavez with a lead of 14 percentage points over rival Gov. Henrique Capriles. The poll by the firm Datanalisis had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Chavez has managed to hold on to support even while his main image has been that of an ailing president climbing or descending airplane stairs on his frequent flights to and from Cuba for treatment. On top of that, many Venezuelans are supporting him despite 25-percent inflation and one of the worst homicide rates in the world.
Information Minister Andres Izarra, one of Chavez's key aides, said on Monday that the president won't be out campaigning door-to-door like his rival because "he doesn't need to." Izarra also said Chavez's spirits are being lifted by his supporters.
"That love of the people, it's arisen like a balsam, like part of his medicine, like part of his treatment to completely recover," Izarra said during a televised speech.
On Friday, Chavez is expected to rally his supporters on the 10th anniversary of his return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup, and he has drawn a parallel between his cancer fight and his survival during that coup, when he was restored to the presidency amid large pro-Chavez street protests.
"At that time, the love of the people rescued Chavez from the edge of death," Izarra said. "This time the love of the people is also rescuing Chavez from a particular health situation, in which if it weren't for that love, I'm sure his ailments would perhaps be greater."
Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said compassion elicited by Chavez's illness "has naturally played to his advantage in the electoral process."
"Not only President Chavez but certainly his supporters and certainly the people handling his political campaign are taking full advantage of it. And I think it would be crazy for them not to do so," Gamarra said.
Chavez's illness also presents a challenge for the opposition, Gamarra said, because it might appear "cold and callous" to attack a seriously ill leader.
For both sides in Venezuela's divided political landscape, Chavez's illness has the potential to be a game-changer. The subject of what would happen if Chavez were to die is taboo among his political allies, as leaders of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela insist that Chavez will be their candidate and that there is no backup plan.
In the meantime, Chavez is adeptly using the uncertainty to once again cast himself as the protagonist in a larger narrative, at times evoking his own tragic hero, 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar, who survived an assassination attempt and then resigned the presidency amid failing health. Bolivar was 47 when he died, and historians have generally cited tuberculosis as the cause.
At a televised meeting this week, Chavez, 57, said the independence leader had been "left without people, left without soldiers."
"What a painful end," Chavez said.
In speeches and rallies, Chavez has regularly shouted the slogan: "We will live and we will win!" It appears to be both his personal mantra and his political bet.
The odds of that bet remain unclear. Since he announced his diagnosis last June, Chavez has kept secret specifics about his illness such as the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors that have been removed.
Some medical experts say based on Chavez's accounts, it's very possible his cancer could come back yet again.
"The tumor is recurrent, and to us that indicates that his chances for a cure are minimal because in cancer care, the best treatment is the first treatment," said Dr. Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He noted that Chavez underwent surgery for a second tumor in February, indicating that his chemotherapy was ineffective.
Other medical experts say that depending on the type and grade of Chavez's cancer, the outlook might not be so grim.
Given Chavez's treatment regimen, he could have a soft-tissue sarcoma, said Dr. Steve Hahn, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.
"It's not necessarily pessimistic," Hahn said. "If he had a low-grade sarcoma, then he really has very little chance of it spreading elsewhere and the radiation, if it prevents it from coming back in the pelvis ... that should pretty much hopefully be the end of the story for him, end of the story meaning control of his disease."
Chavez's face has at times appeared puffy during his cancer treatments, and in September he acknowledged taking steroids along with other medications. Doctors say steroids can be prescribed as an anti-nausea medication to cope with the effects of chemotherapy and can help increase appetite and energy levels. Molina noted that excessive steroids use can spur side effects such as fluid retention, mood swings and increased blood pressure.
"It's always possible that they gave him a short course of steroids, he felt good, and then he requested that, you know, keep on this. It's very hard when you're a president and you have the powers to say 'this is what I want to do,'" Molina said.
The dearth of hard information about Chavez's illness, as well as the fluctuations in his tone and appearance, have fueled speculation and rumors about Chavez's health in the Venezuelan media and on the street.
Chavez, for one, has urged political allies not to waste time responding to the gossip.
Chavez communicated with the nation on Wednesday through several messages on his Twitter account while finishing his latest round of radiation treatment in Cuba.
"I'm putting on my combat boots!" one of the messages read. "Wait for me!!"
That night, Chavez made yet another homecoming at Caracas' airport, smiling as he descended the airplane stairs next to one of his daughters and saying he was doing well. He appeared vigorous as he chatted with aides at the presidential palace and reminisced about the 2002 coup during a televised talk that ended nearly an hour after midnight.
Chavez's legions of supporters have shown intense loyalty to their hero, regularly gathering at government-organized events to pray for his health.
On a downtown Caracas avenue, lampposts have been festooned with banners showing a healthy Chavez smiling and wearing the red beret of his years as an army paratrooper, along with the slogan: "Onward Commandant!"
At one recent pro-Chavez rally outside the presidential palace, Magalys Martinez said she's optimistic Chavez can overcome his illness.
"He very much wants to live," said Martinez, herself a cancer patient. "For this illness, what he needs to have is ambition to live."
Another supporter at the rally, 63-year-old Bernarda Mena de Palacios, said she's thankful to Chavez for a government-run education program that helped her earn her high school diploma.
"We're praying for the president," she said. "I have faith he's going to come out victorious. We can't lose a president like him."
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap