* Journalist's reports on Chavez's health have mass
* Nelson Bocaranda is hate figure for government allies
* Gossip, rumors abound amid official secrecy
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, March 8 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
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?"
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)