A YEAR ago Hugo Chávez had a “baseball-sized” tumour extracted from his pelvic region. In February he needed another operation, after the (still officially unspecified) cancer returned. During the past 12 months Venezuela’s president has required, according to opposition estimates, some 200 days of treatment and/or rest. In the past month he has been seen only in the briefest of television clips, some of them seemingly designed to show that he can still walk.
But there was one public appearance that he could not elude. On June 11th he met the deadline for registering his candidacy for a presidential election on October 7th, at which he will seek a third six-year term. The day before Henrique Capriles, the 39-year-old candidate of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, had demonstrated his own vigour by walking 10km (6 miles) to the offices of the CNE, the electoral authority, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of supporters. By contrast, Mr Chávez made the ten-block journey from the presidential palace to the CNE on an open-topped bus, reportedly equipped with a hidden lift so that he could avoid having to climb stairs. His ascent to the platform from which he spoke to his supporters was out of camera-range.
The president, who insists he is “fine”, did not disappoint what official propaganda dubbed “the sea of happy people”. In all, he was seen for around five hours, for much of which he was standing. He spoke for almost three hours. If not quite vintage Chávez, the speech included many familiar elements, including insults for Mr Capriles, whom the president dubs el majunche (“the mediocrity”). If re-elected, he said, he would make socialism irreversible in Venezuela, turn the country into a regional power and work to save the planet from capitalism.
Many of the red-shirted chavistas who crammed into the squares and the narrow streets around the CNE were public employees, instructed by their bosses to turn out for the rally. Nevertheless, most polls continue to give the president a significant lead over Mr Capriles. However, between a quarter and a third of respondents claim to be undecided, a higher percentage than in the past. In a polarised country, the opposition claims that it has a hidden vote among public-sector workers and others reluctant to admit their disillusion with Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”.
But there is no doubting that millions of Venezuelans remain fervent supporters of their president. Take a ride down the metro line that runs southwestward from the centre of Caracas, and it is easy to see why. Las Adjuntas lies at the end of the line, wedged into a narrow valley crammed with slum housing. Hundreds lost their homes here in landslides 18 months ago. But now, smart new government-built tower-blocks in red and grey are sprouting to house the homeless and give work to the unemployed. A plaque outside one claims it includes the 200,000th home built under Mr Chávez’s recently created “grand housing mission”. The president has promised ten times that number of homes—enough to remedy the country’s chronic housing deficit—if he is re-elected.
Silvia Hernández says her son, cousin and nephew, all of whom were unemployed, are now working on the construction site. She is on the list for a home, too. Meanwhile, the government has lent her 15,000 bolívares (almost $3,500 at the official exchange rate) to do some repairs. “I love my president,” says Mrs Hernández, who works at a local clinic run by an NGO. “I adore him.”
With help from Cuba, Mr Chávez dreamed up the “missions” as emergency welfare schemes, in 2003. Their ebb and flow has coincided with the electoral cycle and done much to keep him in power. Around three dozen have been launched, although many languish half-forgotten.
While public hospitals fall apart for lack of investment, people in barrios like Las Adjuntas enjoy Cuban-staffed neighbourhood clinics. Their food is subsidised through the Mercal mission, and their children’s education is free up to university level. Other missions provide cash handouts to the elderly, the disabled and mothers living in poverty. “All my neighbours are beneficiaries,” Ms Hernández says.
The opposition says the missions are inefficient, plagued with corruption and clientilistic. According to Mr Capriles’ party, quoting what it says is a leaked report by Cuban advisers, only 36,000 new homes, not 200,000, were completed by April. The missions are also probably unaffordable: even as Venezuela’s oil revenues soared over the past two years, the government has been piling up debt. But the missions have been so effective politically that the opposition has felt obliged to pledge to continue them, though it also aims to fix their flaws.
This promises to be an election campaign like no other. Will the president live until October? Will voters elect a man who might die before January’s inauguration? Who might replace him? Potential successors include Nicolás Maduro, the foreign minister who is favoured by Cuba, and Diosdado Cabello, a companion of Mr Chávez since their army days and now chairman of the National Assembly. Last month “Diosdado for President” posters briefly appeared on the streets of Caracas, variously ascribed to opposition provocateurs or a subterranean power-struggle. But no potential substitute would easily defeat Mr Capriles, polls suggest. Certainly none of them enthuses the grass roots. “If Chávez were gone, I don’t know what would happen here,” says Mrs Hernández. Whatever the president’s condition, it seems that the revolution’s leaders will have to strap him to his horse, like El Cid, and send him into battle in October.