- Associated Press - Monday, April 16, 2012

CARACAS — With fewer than six months left until election day, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has hardly hit the campaign trail.

Instead, he has been consumed with his fight against cancer, repeatedly traveling to Cuba for treatment and publicly vowing to defeat his illness.

While cancer would end the presidential ambitions of many politicians, Mr. Chavez’s struggle against the disease has in fact become his main rallying cry.

Cancer could serve as a political asset, if his health holds through the October vote.

Last week, Mr. Chavez offered his starkest outlook yet as he wept while holding hands with his parents at a Mass and then pleaded to Jesus Christ to give him more life.

“Give me your crown, Christ,” Mr. Chavez said in live footage broadcast nationwide.

“Give me your cross, 100 crosses. I’ll carry it, but give me life because there are still things left for me to do for these people and for this homeland. Don’t take me away yet.”

The socialist president said later that he has faith in a “miracle,” as he undergoes radiation therapy in Cuba following two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic area.

Political support still strong

So far, what appears to be a serious life-or-death crisis has not dented his political support. One recent poll showed Mr. Chavez with a lead of 14 percentage points over rival Henrique Capriles. The poll by the firm Datanalisis had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Mr. Chavez has managed to hold on to support even while his main image has been that of an ailing president climbing or descending airplane stairs on his frequent flights to and from Cuba for treatment. Many Venezuelans are supporting him despite 25-percent inflation and one of the worst homicide rates in the world.

Information Minister Andres Izarra, one of Mr. Chavez’s key aides, said that the president will not be out campaigning door-to-door like his rival because “he doesn’t need to.” Mr. Izarra also said Mr. Chavez’s spirits are being lifted by his supporters.

“That love of the people, it’s arisen like a balsam, like part of his medicine, like part of his treatment to completely recover,” Mr. Izarra said during a televised speech.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said compassion elicited by Mr. Chavez’s illness ” has naturally played to his advantage in the electoral process.”

“Not only President Chavez but certainly his supporters and certainly the people handling his political campaign are taking full advantage of it. And I think it would be crazy for them not to do so,” Mr. Gamarra said.

For both sides in Venezuela’s divided political landscape, Mr. Chavez’s illness has the potential to be a game-changer.

The subject of what would happen if Mr. Chavez were to die is taboo among his political allies, as leaders of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela insist that Mr. Chavez will be their candidate and that there is no backup plan.

In speeches and rallies, Mr. Chavez has regularly shouted the slogan: “We will live, and we will win!” It appears to be both his personal mantra and his political bet.

Secrecy surrounds illness

Since he announced his diagnosis last year, Mr. Chavez has kept secret specifics about his illness such as the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors that have been removed.

Some medical experts say based on Mr. Chavez’s accounts, it is very possible his cancer could come back yet again.

“The tumor is recurrent, and to us that indicates that his chances for a cure are minimal because in cancer care, the best treatment is the first treatment,” said Dr. Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minn.

He noted that Mr. Chavez underwent surgery for a second tumor in February, indicating that his chemotherapy was ineffective.

Other medical experts say that depending on the type and grade of Mr. Chavez’s cancer, the outlook might not be so grim.

Given his treatment regimen, he could have a soft-tissue sarcoma, said Dr. Steve Hahn, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“It’s not necessarily pessimistic,” Dr. Hahn said.

“If he had a low-grade sarcoma, then he really has very little chance of it spreading elsewhere.”

Mr. Chavez’s face has, at times, appeared puffy during his cancer treatments. In September he acknowledged taking steroids along with other medications.

Doctors say steroids can be prescribed as an anti-nausea medication to cope with the effects of chemotherapy and can help increase appetite and energy levels.

Chavez communicated with the nation last week through several messages on his Twitter account, while finishing his latest round of radiation treatment in Cuba.

“I’m putting on my combat boots!” one of the messages read. “Wait for me!!”

That night, Mr. Chavez made yet another homecoming at Caracas’ airport, smiling as he descended the airplane stairs next to one of his daughters and saying he was doing well.

On a downtown Caracas avenue, lampposts have been festooned with banners showing a healthy Chavez smiling and wearing the red beret of his years as an army paratrooper, along with the slogan: “Onward Commandant!”

At one recent pro-Chavez rally outside the presidential palace, Magalys Martinez said she is optimistic Mr. Chavez can overcome his illness.

“He very much wants to live,” said Ms. Martinez, herself a cancer patient. “For this illness, what he needs to have is ambition to live.”



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