CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spent much of his career praising the socialist ideas of famed atheists such as Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Now in the thick of a prolonged battle against cancer, however, the leftist leader is drawing inspiration more than ever from a spiritual leader: Jesus Christ.
Chavez has been praying for divine intervention during increasingly infrequent appearances on television, holding up a crucifix while vowing to overcome his illness. He says living with cancer has made him "more Christian," talk that has coincided with speculation by some Venezuelans that cancer might cut short his bid for re-election in October.
Chavez's voice cracked with emotion as he bade farewell to aides and supporters in Caracas on April 30 before leaving for what he said would be his final round of cancer treatment in Cuba.
"I'm sure our Christ will do it again, continuing making the miracle," Chavez said as he raised his cross to his lips and kissed it, prompting applause from an audience of aides.
If Chavez survives cancer, political analysts say his increasing religiosity could pay election-year dividends in a country where Catholicism remains influential.
"Given that he cannot hide the illness, but he can hide its characteristics and danger, he's decided to take as much advantage of it as he can, and one advantage is the symbolic and religious issue," said Luis Vicente Leon, a Venezuelan pollster and analyst. "He'll present himself as the chosen one, the man who has been cured and healed by the Lord to continue governing the country."
The president has alternated between emotional fragility and optimism in public, mentioning God and Jesus nearly every time he shows up on TV.
Chavez shed tears last month during a televised Mass with relatives in Venezuela, when he prayed aloud to Jesus to "give me life."
In a later appearance in Cuba, Chavez held up the same crucifix that he said helped deliver him from one of his darkest moments, a 2002 coup that briefly deposed him. He returned to the presidency within two days.
"I have great faith in what we're doing, in this intense undertaking against the illness that ambushed me last year, and I have faith, I repeat, in God," said Chavez, who looked pale and bloated.
"It's like a pact with God, with Christ my Lord," Chavez said. "I'm sure he will lay on a hand so that this treatment, which we're rigorously following, will have supreme success."
Chavez's religiosity contrasts with the resolute secularism of his political father figure, Castro, and other leaders who have followed the socialist path Chavez lauds.
A large majority of Venezuelans practice Catholicism, and Protestant denominations have grown rapidly in some parts of the country. Many Venezuelans also practice folk religions and leave offerings at roadside shrines.
Mixing religion and politics isn't new in Venezuela, even if religious groups generally don't get directly involved in politics. Former President Luis Herrera characterized himself as spiritually pure and promoted social programs for the poor while leading his Copei Social Christian party.
Other Latin American leaders have employed religious symbols while seeking votes.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega highlighted his Christian faith during his re-election bid last year, when his campaign rallies were accompanied by religious processions, chants and the campaign slogan "Christian, Socialist and In Solidarity." Ortega's campaign strategy dismayed Catholic Church leaders, who called his use of spirituality part of a ploy to deceive voters.