Chavez tries to shed image of weakness before election

CARACAS (Reuters) – In September, he played baseball in the midday sun. In October, he rapped on live TV. In November, he was out jogging with military cadets, and this month he hosted a Latin American summit.

Hugo Chavez

Despite cancer, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is sparing no effort or expense to make it clear to supporters and detractors alike that he is ready to take on and win the toughest re-election campaign of his 13 years in power.

Details about the socialist leader’s condition have remained a closely guarded secret since he appeared, looking pallid and shocked, on TV in June from Havana to declare he had undergone surgery to remove a large tumor from his pelvis.

The 57-year-old Chavez, who has no clear successor, says he has been completely cured after four chemotherapy sessions, and his recovery before the cameras has been notable.

His face still looks swollen from the treatment, but his hair has begun to grow back. Still, medical experts say it is too soon for him to claim he has beaten the cancer, and rumours about his health persist.

Six months later, one thing is certain: the campaign for next October’s presidential election will be unlike any the normally garrulous, man-of-the-people Chavez has fought before.

Where once he would wade into crowds during lengthy cross-country tours, his medical team is sure to try to keep him on a tighter rein. He will have to make more of his television appearances, which at up to 3 or 4 hours are already getting longer again, though not yet back to the intensity of his pre-cancer days.

“The doctors tell me, ‘Chavez, take it slowly because you’re going too fast.’ The cancer I have has many causes, one of which is stress,” he said last week at the launch of one of the social programs that provide a cornerstone of his support.

Surveys by local pollsters Hinterlaces and Consultores 21 say six in 10 Venezuelans believe Chavez is in full recovery. That will cheer the key members of his inner circle, who are determined to keep the prospect of a weakened candidate far from the public’s mind.

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