Hugo Chavez looks to God as cancer clouds future

By Christopher Toothaker

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 7 2012 12:30 p.m. MDT

Despite the recent shows of faith, the president has had a rocky relationship with Catholic leaders. He has accused priests of siding with the country's wealthy rather than the poor and in a particularly heated clash in 2010, suggested that Christ would whip some church leaders for lying after Cardinal Jorge Urosa warned that democratic freedoms were being eroded in Venezuela.

Chavez insists his faith goes back to his days as an altar boy, and long before his illness, he was calling Jesus Christ "the greatest socialist in history."

Still, his increasing appeals for help from Christ have shown supporters a vulnerable side to a leader who for more than 13 years in office has projected power and vigor.

"We'd forgotten for so long that Chavez is simply a man like any other, a man of flesh and blood," said Florencia Mijares, an office worker who prayed for the president at a Caracas church. "For many Venezuelans, Chavez is a savior who arrived to help everybody else and now he's the one who needs help, and many of us fear all will be lost if he dies."

Chavez has been receiving radiation therapy in Cuba over the past week, the latest phase in treatments that since June have included chemotherapy and two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic region, though he has not said what sort of cancer he has.

Chavez hasn't appeared on television since leaving Venezuela, instead communicating with supporters through Twitter messages.

Despite the long absences, Chavez has been leading opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles by double digits in recent polls.

Some of his supporters said they see Chavez's increased devotion as a natural evolution for a president in a dire situation.

As soon as Chavez revealed he had a tumor removed last year, a pro-Chavez group called the Council of Christian Public Employees organized dozens of prayer meetings across the country, several of which were broadcast live on state television and Christian radio stations.

"The president could have decided to distance himself from God or not believed in him due what he was going through," said Linda Aguirre, the organization's president. "I thank God that he's chosen the most important decision of his life: to embrace our Lord."

Indian shamans wearing parrot feathers and beads also held a healing ritual for Chavez at a Caracas plaza last month, performing traditional dances and chants, and kneeling on the ground in prayer.

"The objective is to inject the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution with positive energy," said Jesus Antonio Juagivioy, a chieftain from the president's home state of Barinas who participated in the ceremony. "We pray for his total recuperation and we know the spirits of our ancestors will help."

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