Venezuelan journalist in eye of Chavez cancer storm

Thu Mar 8, 2012 9:20am EST

Related Topics

* Journalist's reports on Chavez's health have mass following

* Nelson Bocaranda is hate figure for government allies

* Gossip, rumors abound amid official secrecy

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, March 8 (Reuters) - Derided as a "liar" and "clown" by President Hugo Chavez's allies, a bespectacled 66-year-old journalist has defied the verbal barrage to become a must-read for anyone tracking the Venezuelan leader's cancer.

Veteran reporter and gossip-columnist Nelson Bocaranda broke the stunning news in mid-2011 that Chavez, the country's all-dominant socialist leader, had the disease.

He followed up last month with another scoop on Chavez's return to Cuba for new treatment after a recurrence of cancer, a massive setback for the 57-year-old populist president ahead of his campaign for re-election in an October vote.

With a daily drip-drip of rumors and details about Chavez's condition, the openly pro-opposition Bocaranda has garnered more than 670,000 followers via his two Twitter accounts - @NelsonBocaranda and @RunRunesWeb.

That prominence has made him a hate figure for Chavez supporters, especially a pugnacious talkshow host Mario Silva who lays into Bocaranda almost every night.

"They call me a homosexual, a cocaine addict, a son of a bitch. I ignore it and laugh," Bocaranda told Reuters in the studios of Union Radio where he has his own evening chat show.

As well as insults, Bocaranda's investigative work on Chavez's health has brought him more fame than at any point in a half-century media career spanning back to when he was 16.

Diplomats, investors, analysts and government officials around Latin America are - like so many Venezuelans - turning to his "runrunes" ("murmurs") given that the government is treating the matter like a state secret.

In Cuba after his latest treatment, the president is the only one giving official information about his health. He says he has had two cancerous tumors removed from the pelvic region and now needs radiation treatment.

Though Chavez insists he is recovering quickly and will be fit for the presidential election campaign and Oct. 7 vote, he claimed wrongly last year to be completely cured, so many Venezuelans are skeptical and there are rumors the cancer has spread.

Mocking the official veil of secrecy, opposition activists jest that Bocaranda has turned into Venezuela's de facto "information minister". Some of Chavez's most militant allies are furious at the attention he is getting for spreading unofficial information from shadowy sources.

"He's sick in his soul," said Diosdado Cabello, a former military comrade of Chavez and the head of Congress. "Every day he wishes death on the 'Comandante', or is he being paid to write his lies?"

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Bocaranda says he has sources around the region, from Cuba and Colombia to Brazil and the United States, and protects them with personal meetings, constant changes of phone chips and the use of Blackberry messenger chat among other techniques.

"We always look for the formula. I love technology," he said, messages clicking from an iPad and various phones tucked in his clothes.

Since Chavez confirmed his cancer in June of 2011 - after Bocaranda's reports that officials had rubbished - the veteran journalist says he has developed even more Venezuelan government sources, mid- and lower-level officials defying the official policy of silence.

"They feel bad that people are never told the truth," said Bocaranda, wearing a newly-made T-shirt proclaiming "I don't know" to satirize the furor over his reports on Chavez's health.

Others at the radio station had shirts saying "Me neither".

On the streets, many Venezuelans consider themselves medical experts these days, or so it would seem from the endless amateur diagnostics on Chavez from bread shops to the banks.

Bocaranda is coy of giving future predictions, saying he prefers to stick to what he knows is happening in the present.

"Clearly the radiotherapy is going to depress him, it's going to really bring him down," he said, adding that Chavez allies are desperately worried about the impact of a sick candidate campaigning for re-election.

A jovial, fast-talking man who loves a joke, Bocaranda does, however, have serious concerns for his safety. He warned in a column this week that the state would be responsible for anything that happens to him or his family.

"I wanted to announce it because I'd been hearing this from three different sources," he told Reuters. (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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