Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Monday declared himself fully recovered from cancer and ready to return to the streets for his re-election campaign.
“Free, free, totally free,” an ebullient Chavez told reporters when asked if he was free of the disease that struck him a year ago.
The 57-year-old leader, who has dominated Venezuela since taking power in 1999, was first diagnosed with cancer in the middle of last year. He wrongly declared himself cured at the end of that year and suffered a recurrence in February this year.
However, after three operations and repeated cycles of treatment, Chavez is once again declaring himself fully fit at a crucial time when his health is the main wild card before the Oct. 7 election.
Despite his optimism, doctors say it is impossible to be sure someone is completely cured of cancer until at least a couple of years have passed since the last recurrence.
Perceptions of Chavez’s ability to campaign for the presidential election, and govern afterward, may play a decisive role in what could be a surprisingly tight election.
The former soldier is leading most opinion polls by double digits, but one recent survey put him neck-and-neck with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and as many as one-third of voters remain undecided.
At a more than four-hour news conference that offered more evidence of Chavez’s increasing energy, he promised to begin campaigning on the streets with a series of caravans from tomorrow.
“Chavez is back in the street, the Bolivarian hurricane!” he added, referring to his idol and Venezuela’s independence hero, Simon Bolivar.
Capriles, a 39-year-old, center-left former governor, has been criss-crossing Venezuela on a “house-by-house” tour in a show of youth and energy that the opposition has been using to contrast with the ailing Chavez, who was famous for his whirlwind on-the-street campaigning of the past.
Capriles held a news conference minutes after Chavez wound his up, mocking his verbose style and longevity in office in a newly combative style he hopes will win votes.
“We’re tired of the blah-blah, of the offensive language ... The pitcher looks tired,” Capriles said, using the baseball imagery often employed by the sports-loving president.
It is not only rhetoric that is heating up on both sides.
Police intervened over the weekend to block a Capriles campaign stop in a Caracas slum after his and Chavez’s supporters confronted each other in the street.
Underlining fears of electoral violence in the deeply polarized nation of 29 million people, stones and bottles were thrown, with several people said to be injured during the fracas on Saturday.
The stakes are big not only for Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves in the world, but also for the wider region.
Political allies from Cuba to Bolivia depend on Chavez’s oil-financed largesse. Washington, too, is watching quietly to see if its fiercest critic in Latin America wins.