CARACAS (Reuters) - Hugo Chavez’s biggest enemy ahead of this year’s presidential election in Venezuela could be the socialist leader himself.
It is a battle between the sick Chavez who needs peace and quiet to recover from cancer, and the workaholic Chavez determined to keep up the pace to win re-election in October in the toughest political fight of his life.
His friend and mentor Fidel Castro hit the nail on the head after Chavez’s latest visit to Cuba for his third operation in less than a year: the Venezuelan leader must carve out time to rest and recuperate.
“I know you, Chavez. Tell your people that you need to be disciplined. They’re going to understand,” Castro told the 57-year-old after the surgery last month.
Chavez has already tried to change his lifestyle, which during his 13 years in power has been characterized by long days with few breaks and a hands-on governing style that has helped him forge an emotional connection with the poor.
But his vows to make fewer of his famously long-winded speeches and take better care of himself have foundered on the fierce cut-and-thrust of Venezuelan politics, and just a few months after having a baseball-sized tumor removed from his pelvis he was sucked back into a bitter electoral campaign.
Then his cancer struck again in February.
“For Chavez, being president is not a 9-5 job. It’s a mission, almost a religious vocation. Now he’s in a battle, not only for his life, but for the survival of his revolution,” U.S. biographer Bart Jones told Reuters. “His life’s work is at stake and it would mean too much for him to take a step back.”
The former soldier has said more than once that his doctors and relatives urge him to rest more during his convalescence, in which he has tried to govern while flying back and forth between Caracas and Havana.
Medical experts say the recurrence of Chavez’s cancer is not necessarily linked to his workload, but the hectic schedule must be wearing on the president, who broke his own record by delivering a speech of almost 10 hours in January.
It begs the question: will the outcome of Chavez versus Chavez be a schedule geared to his recovery, or one set by his election campaign?
One source close to the medical team treating the president in Venezuela told Reuters that Chavez turned down an offer from his friend, former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to be treated at a renowned Sao Paulo hospital - because it would keep him off the campaign trail more than he would like.
“Chavez has the last word on his treatment,” said the source, adding that the former paratrooper was weighing political and personal aspects alongside the medical concerns.
For now, Chavez seems to prefer the privacy afforded him in tightly-controlled Cuba, where the chance of leaks to the media is minimized and he has the counsel of Fidel Castro.
After his relapse, Chavez now has less than six months left before the October 7 election to try to shake off the image of a “sick candidate” which could hurt his chances - especially since he had declared himself cancer-free at the end of last year.
“The president faces a dilemma: he needs to be the strong Chavez like always, leading his followers in the street with his enthusiasm and charisma. But he also needs to take care of himself because the election is not just for one day, it’s for six years,” said Saul Cabrera of local pollster Consultores 21.
Venezuelans may not know exactly what is wrong with their president, but - like Fidel Castro - they know the patient well: he is used to dominating the political scene and micro-managing his government. He refuses to play second fiddle to anyone.
The sight of Chavez asking God “not to take him yet” during a pre-Easter Mass revived doubts about whether he will be able to return to the combative figure who swept previous elections, survived a brief coup against him and whose tirades against Washington and widespread nationalizations have turned him into one of the world’s best-known leaders.
“Give me life, even if it is a burning, painful life. I don’t care,” he said during the emotional Mass, as his mother and brother looked on from the congregation, stony-faced.
Chavez looked weak and thin after his first two operations and four sessions of chemotherapy that left him with a shaved head. His face is swollen, and at times he appears haggard and exhausted.
His return to Cuba for a third operation and the start of his radiation treatment set off a new round of rumors of a bad prognosis and growing tensions between the president, his relatives and his doctors.
Amid all the conjecture, Chavez still talks of recovery and his optimism remains undimmed, at least in front of the cameras.
“This cancer can’t cope with Chavez,” he declared recently.
Opinion polls show him with a strong lead over his rival Henrique Capriles - a 13 percentage points gap in the latest survey published last month. Those results are helped, in part, by a so-called “sympathy bounce” linked to his illness.
They have also been reinforced by massive spending on pro-poor policies including a house-building program and cash handouts to the elderly and to poor families with children that will in total account for some $26 billion in state funds.
But a large number of Venezuelans remain undecided, and both political camps have been fighting hard to win them over.
Capriles is on a tour around the country, seeking to woo voters including disaffected “Chavistas” whose biggest concerns are rampant insecurity, sky-high inflation and the poor quality of many public services.
The 39-year-old the opposition leader jumps at every chance to play basketball or ride his motorbike, projecting a youthful, energetic figure sharply at contrast with Chavez’s image.
“How will Chavez manage the situation against a rival whose strong point in the campaign will be his presence in the street, showing off his energy,” asked Cabrera, of Consultores 21
Late last year, polls showed the president had managed to convince six out of ten Venezuelans he was completely cured. It was against that backdrop that Fidel Castro first asked his ally to have more patience and be disciplined.
“Don’t be misled by impulses,” Castro told him last August.
Chavez returned to Havana on Saturday to undergo his fourth and fifth five-day sessions of radiation therapy, meaning that a certain amount of rest and recovery will be imposed upon him by his medical team there. He has again promised that this time he will follow his doctors’ advice to the letter.
But many Venezuelans are skeptical.
Just a day after his return in March from his third operation, Chavez was singing and dancing on the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace, sweating under the tropical sun.
“Chavez has to lead his own re-election campaign because there is no other Chavez in Venezuela. He is a unique figure and there doesn’t seem to be anyone (among his top allies) capable of replacing him,” said Jones, the U.S. writer.
Chavez has ruled out withdrawing from the race, and for now he looks unwilling to give up the star role in the campaign.
“Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people,” he said at the Mass.
Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Kieran Murray