Miraflores Presidential Office, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela — With less 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, 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, and that's the big "if" hanging over Venezuelan politics.
Last week, 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," 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."
Chavez 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.
So far, what appears to be a serious life-or-death crisis hasn't dented his political support. To the contrary, one recent poll showed Chavez with a lead of 14 percentage points over rival Gov. Henrique Capriles. The poll by the firm Datanalisis had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
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. On top of that, 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 Chavez's key aides, said on Monday that the president won't be out campaigning door-to-door like his rival because "he doesn't need to." Izarra also said 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," Izarra said during a televised speech.
On Friday, Chavez is expected to rally his supporters on the 10th anniversary of his return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup, and he has drawn a parallel between his cancer fight and his survival during that coup, when he was restored to the presidency amid large pro-Chavez street protests.
"At that time, the love of the people rescued Chavez from the edge of death," Izarra said. "This time the love of the people is also rescuing Chavez from a particular health situation, in which if it weren't for that love, I'm sure his ailments would perhaps be greater."
Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said compassion elicited by 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," Gamarra said.
Chavez's illness also presents a challenge for the opposition, Gamarra said, because it might appear "cold and callous" to attack a seriously ill leader.
For both sides in Venezuela's divided political landscape, Chavez's illness has the potential to be a game-changer. The subject of what would happen if Chavez were to die is taboo among his political allies, as leaders of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela insist that Chavez will be their candidate and that there is no backup plan.
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