Hugo Chavez thrives on drama. After coming to power thirteen years ago, the former military officer has survived a coup, likened a US president to the devil and used a combination of charisma and oil revenues to sweep away all serious opposition. But today his raging invincibility is in doubt.
It isn't only that ahead of elections in October, the opposition in Venezuela has settled on a candidate who, though still far behind in the polls, is showing signs of strength. There is another matter weighing more heavily than any other – the recurrence of cancer that was first diagnosed last year.
Today, Chavez is in Cuba, where he has chosen to receive all of his treatment and surgery. The first last June involved the removal of a tennis-ball sized tumour from his pelvic area.
With characteristic bluster, Mr Chavez has repeatedly vowed to defeat the disease. All reference to his illness comes with the usual theatrics. "Give me life, even if it is a burning, painful life, I don't care," he pleaded at an Easter mass. "Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people."
But it is a measure of the seriousness of his condition that Mr Chavez opted to skip the Summit of the Americas in Colombia at the weekend.
It is now a serous question as to whether Mr Chavez will have it in him to fight the election effectively.
"For Chavez, being president is not a 9 to 5 job. It's a mission, almost a religious vocation. Now he's in a battle, not only for his life, but for the survival of his revolution," noted a US biographer of the president, Bart Jones. "His life's work is at stake and it would mean too much for him to take a step back." The man set to benefit from a weakened Mr Chavez is opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who at 39 has already set a dizzying pace campaigning across the land on a platform that promises to steer a more moderate leftist course.
The most recent poll has put Mr Capriles 13 points behind and Mr Chavez, aside from controlling most of the media, has set about dispensing $26bn to build homes for the poor and give cash to the elderly. But by offering an alternative that might be called Chavez-lite, Mr Capriles may have a chance to make up the gap.
"Capriles is trying to appeal to the left and this could definitely pick up votes," says Professor Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina.Reuse content