CARACAS Mystery, rumor and conspiracy theories surround Hugo Chavez's health almost a year after his cancer diagnosis, with many Venezuelans contemplating a future without their larger-than-life president.
Chavez, a burly former soldier who has dominated the OPEC country for 13 years, says he is on the road to recovery and will seek re-election in October. About two-thirds of voters believe he will get better and he leads most opinion polls.
But the state secrecy around Chavez's illness and his uncharacteristic low profile are feeding speculation he might have to step aside before voting day, or perhaps soon after the October 7 election that pits him against young, investor-friendly governor Henrique Capriles.
Voters, especially opposition supporters in the acutely polarized country, say the worst thing is simply not knowing.
"People say he's really bad, but then he suddenly pops up talking," said Barbara Sanchez, 33, a dentist in a wealthy neighborhood of Caracas who supports Capriles and said the government didn't want people to know the truth.
"What worries me is wondering what would happen if the president died. They haven't told us that," she said.
No one is saying what kind of cancer the socialist president had, how aggressive or advanced the disease was when it was detected, and exactly what treatment he has been undergoing in communist-run Cuba as a guest of his mentor, Fidel Castro.
But he has undergone three operations on his pelvis in less than a year. Radiation therapy has tired him out, he says, and he admits he is no longer the "wild horse" of old.
He has repeatedly said he is trying to tame his workaholic ways and follow his doctors' orders to rest.
"Nowadays, I'm asking God to give me the strength of the buffalo rather than the horse," he said last week.
The upbeat remarks, followed on Tuesday by a two-hour TV broadcast of a lively Chavez leading a Cabinet meeting - his first public appearance in 11 days - could cool speculation that he may be losing his battle with cancer.
Doubts that Chavez would make a full recovery increased when his disease recurred in February, months after announcing he was "cured." Then at a pre-Easter church service with his mother and brother in the congregation, Chavez wept as he asked God to spare his life. "Do not take me yet," he said.
Due to the scant official information available, Venezuelans are seizing on the smallest clues over his condition - down to whether he sounds breathless in his phone calls to state TV, or the pallor of his skin under the television lights.
Some critics have suggested his robust appearance in recent weeks may be due to heavy use of steroids.
Veteran opposition journalist Nelson Bocaranda, who has often broken news about Chavez's condition in the absence of official updates, said the president needed "a heavy dose of tranquilizers" to help him walk down the steps from the plane on his latest return from Havana.
Six decades after Argentina's cancer-stricken first lady, Evita Peron, wore a plaster corset under her fur coat to sit up straight before adoring crowds, medical experts say much now can be done to help very unwell patients look better.
Such advances make it even more difficult to judge just how sick Chavez actually is.
"You can do that very effectively because he just has to give a show for a few minutes and then the rest of the day he's concealed," said Sunil Daryanani, an oncologist at a big private hospital in Caracas.
"He hasn't said 'I'm very ill' or 'I'm down with an incurable disease' ... I'm sure he's going to come back like the phoenix, saying he's beaten cancer."
Specialists say the next few months will be crucial for assessing Chavez's health and whether recent radiation therapy has succeeded. Many say he has a good chance of recovering, though he would still need check-ups in the years ahead.
"Over the coming three or four months, he will probably have his first (post-radiotherapy) check-ups ... this is the first line of defense and he will have to be checked regularly for many years," said Venezuelan radiotherapist Nestor Sanchez.
"The patient's attitude is one of the most important factors in their rehabilitation and recovery and he seems a man who's full of energy and committed to his project. That is a big advantage for him," he added.
Less than five months from election day, much could change, but most voters expect very few concrete details from the government about their president's health.
"I'm not losing sleep over it anymore," said lawyer Juan Carlos Pereira, 32. "Whatever happens, it's going to affect people, but there's nothing we can do about it. It's all down to the illness."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)