CARACAS (Reuters) - Living with cancer has pushed Venezuela’s fiery President Hugo Chavez to change his habits and diet, his governing style and even his outlook on life.
His marathon speeches have been cut back dramatically and the socialist leader is following doctors’ orders for the first time. He is more philosophical and has a new, more conciliatory message for his opponents.
Frequently invoking God and the spirits of the Venezuelan plains where he was born, Chavez says he has been reborn.
“It’s not that this is a different Chavez, I’m the same. But it’s like a new stage of my life, more diverse, more reflexive, more open-minded” he said in one recent appearance.
Although he maintains his radical left-wing ideology, reinforced during several weeks’ treatment and recovery as the guest of his friend and mentor Fidel Castro in communist-led Cuba, Chavez now says his government will try to build bridges with the middle-class and the private sector, two groups that he has long identified as enemies of his “revolution.”
His opponents are wary of the “new Chavez,” pointing out that he has been through something similar before.
A spirit of reconciliation after a brief coup against him in 2002 did not last long, despite him holding aloft a crucifix to pardon his foes and asking for their forgiveness in return.
They fear this new round of conciliatory gestures is little more than political theater and that before long he will be back to his old ways of ridiculing and intimidating them.
Chavez plans to run for another six-year term at an election due late next year, but opposition parties sense a chance to end the convalescing leader’s 12-year rule. They see political positioning in his professed new outlook on life.
“Symbolic terrain is nothing trivial or banal for Chavez. There was a very clear electoral campaign message. For him, radicalism is no longer profitable,” Teodoro Petkoff, who runs opposition newspaper Tal Cual, wrote in an editorial.
During celebrations to mark his 57th birthday a week ago, Chavez was given an out-of-character bright yellow shirt as a gift, instead of his more customary army fatigues or something in revolutionary red.
Wearing it while speaking from the balcony of his palace to the huge crowd below, he urged them to change the slogan his supporters chanted for years, “Socialist fatherland or death!” to a less ideological “We will live and we will conquer!”
“I had no political intentions. No, it was more spiritual,” he said, explaining his unusual attire. “I’m beginning a new life, honestly, I tell you.”
Chavez has lost 33 pounds (15 kg) following the cancer surgery and a first session of chemotherapy in Havana. His face is slightly swollen and he shaved his head after telling the nation more chemotherapy might leave him bald.
He has not said exactly what type of cancer he has but insists he will beat it.
The “new” Chavez gets up at dawn, does exercise, sticks to a healthy diet and — for the first time in his life — follows his doctors’ orders with “strict military discipline.”
That begins with limiting his famously long appearances and speeches. He is sending out a lot of messages on the Twitter social network site and often calls state TV, even at dawn, to show he remains fully in control. But he no longer stays on air or speaking to supporters at public events for hours on end.
Chavez often discusses the details of his rehabilitation, from the home cooking his mother brings him to the 10 daily cups of coffee he has now exchanged for six liters of water and the green tea recommended for him by “doctor” Fidel.
Although his disease has done little to soften his sometimes scathing rhetoric against his “stateless” political foes and the “decadent” U.S. empire, Chavez now spends more time dwelling on melancholy memories of his humble but happy childhood, or his life as a cadet at the military academy.
“It’s my eternal return, the return of myself, the child I was, the teen-ager I was, the cadet I was, the dreamer I was,” said the president, who quotes profusely from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
The challenge now, he concedes, is learning to delegate and get a handle on his desire to micro-manage every aspect of his government. Chavez says he wants more time to read, take walks with relatives and return to painting, a childhood hobby.
Few dare predict how long this reflective phase will last given the uncertainties about his illness, Chavez’s fickle nature and Venezuela’s hectic politics, which in just over a decade have produced a failed coup, a crippling oil sector strike, more than 10 elections and four referendums.
Although it is unlikely that cancer will substantially put the brakes on his drive for further socialist reforms, Chavez could look to soften the more aggressive side of his character. which polls show is disliked by most Venezuelans.
“Brothers and sisters, Venezuelans, I love you all, regardless of your social status, skin color, age, sex or religious beliefs. I love you!” he said last week during a unusual phone call to a group of private entrepreneurs.
Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Kieran Murray