CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s absence from the spotlight, his creation of a formal advisory committee, and media leaks of medical details are feeding speculation of a downturn in his nearly year-long battle with cancer.
With a presidential election looming for October 7 in the OPEC nation ruled by Chavez since 1999, Venezuelans are obsessively focused on his condition and fretting about the consequences of a possible succession struggle.
Should the rumours be true - and they are fiercely denied by government officials - an end to the Chavez era would shake Venezuela and have major repercussions around Latin America where leftist allies like Cuba depend on his oil-fuelled largesse.
Spending most of the last six weeks in Havana for radiotherapy treatment, Chavez has only been seen once live in public since mid-April - and he ended that short address on Monday choking on his words and with tears in his eyes.
“These are not easy days, but we are warriors,” he said.
That image has stuck in Venezuelans’ minds, echoing a Mass last month where Chavez wept and asked God to spare his life.
Further stoking the rumour-mill, Chavez this week created a new Council of State, intended to act as an advisory committee. It is composed of veteran loyalists including a military officer and octogenarian confidant Jose Vicente Rangel.
Chavez’s first task for the council, which looks similar to a body by the same name in communist-run Cuba, is to study his recommendation that Venezuela leave an Americas-wide regional human rights court.
Yet some media, politicians and analysts suspect it may also be a mechanism Chavez wants ready to work out a potential transition, and possible mediation between competing factors of the ruling Socialist Party, military and opposition.
Adding to the uncertainty, some pro-opposition journalists are constantly feeding into the public arena deeply personal details of Chavez’s treatment, based, they say, on medical sources close to or within the team of doctors treating him.
The best-known, columnist and radio talk-show host Nelson Bocaranda, said this week that Chavez had plunged into depression over bad news on his prognosis, and was suffering severe pain from both the treatment and the spreading disease.
In his latest column, Bocaranda said radiotherapy in Cuba had caused a fracture in Chavez’s femur. The journalist said a photo of Chavez’s arrival in Cuba on Monday was carefully staged to avoid showing a wheelchair and walking stick.
“Everyone around him knows that tough times are coming,” wrote Bocaranda, who has a massive readership but has become a hate figure for Chavez officials.
Since being diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011, and while undergoing three operations to remove malignant tumours in his pelvic region plus both chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Chavez has always poured scorn on speculation of his demise.
In his live address in Caracas on Monday, and during a phone call to state TV from Havana a few days earlier, he urged people to understand the debilitating effect of his treatment - but insisted he was on the road to recovery.
“He’s right in the middle of treatment, focused and disciplined. Advancing in his recovery, thinking and working every day to support the popular revolution,” Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, widely touted as a possible heir, said on Wednesday, echoing the official line.
Many Venezuelans, though, are not convinced.
In previous stages of treatment last year, Chavez still managed to appear live at regular intervals, often joking and signing documents with ministers in sessions shown on live TV, or tossing a baseball to show he still had vigor.
But his once-ubiquitous presence on state TV has withered to the occasional comment on Twitter, and he is not making public appearances that would allow for physical scrutiny.
Cabinet ministers reading his tweets to cheering crowds at rallies are on some days the only trace of a leader who once dominated the airwaves. State television puts his posts from the micro blogging site on its screen.
Venezuela’s bonds have rallied on signs his condition may be worsening, which investors believe could pave the way for a more market friendly government. The country’s debt is up 4 percent since Chavez left for Cuba in mid-April and has risen 23 percent so far this year.
Even during Monday’s address, Chavez stood behind a large podium covering him from the chest down.
“His mood is changing, and you can see the anxiety now in the faces of his ministers too,” said Caracas car park attendant Miguel Luciano. “The situation’s looking ugly.”
The national guessing-game over who might replace Chavez from within his ranks swings regularly to-and-fro.
Earlier in the year, Congress head and former military colleague Diosdado Cabello was leading bets.
Now, though, Foreign Minister Maduro is returning to prominence and is the pick of some Wall Street analysts and ambassadors, while the constitution puts Vice-President Elias Jaua in line to take over in a crisis.
Some say the unpredictable Chavez could confound popular wisdom and try to name one of his daughters as a successor, should he be forced to step down.
Meanwhile, the opposition’s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, is struggling to capture public attention despite a grueling, nationwide “house-by-house” tour of Venezuela.
Most polls give Chavez a healthy, two-digit gap over Capriles. Public sympathy, and continued massive spending on welfare projects for the poor, is sustaining the president’s popularity.
To the frustration of opposition activists, a major policy announcement by Capriles on unemployment last week - promising to create 3 million new jobs in six years if elected - caused barely a ripple around the country.
Yet Chavez’s new Labour Law - which includes extending maternity leave to six months, reducing the work week by four hours to 40 hours and increasing severance benefits - is the talk of Venezuela.
While polls put Chavez ahead of Capriles, they also show the opposition candidate would likely beat any of the president’s main allies if they were to stand instead of their boss.
With so much uncertainty, the possible scenarios are myriad.
Venezuela’s constitution states that if an incumbent steps down within four years into a six-year term, a new vote would be due. So if Chavez were to win, yet become incapacitated soon after, the opposition would have another chance.
Many Venezuelans, though, are simply wondering if they will see him on the ballot on October 7.
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Marianna Parraga,; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Kieran Murray and Eric Beech