Venezuelans Tune In For Scoops On Chavez's Health

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears at an event in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, after returning from radiation therapy in Cuba. i i

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears at an event in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, after returning from radiation therapy in Cuba. Ariana Cubillos/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears at an event in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, after returning from radiation therapy in Cuba.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears at an event in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, after returning from radiation therapy in Cuba.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

For nearly a year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been treated for cancer, but little is known about his health beyond the information he himself provides.

That has led to speculation about his health swirling in the president's oil-rich country, particularly over whether he can withstand a grueling campaign as he seeks a third presidential term.

The 57-year-old president has been traveling to and from Cuba for surgeries and radiation therapy for an undisclosed type of cancer — most recently, returning to Venezuela on Thursday after undergoing his first radiation treatment and appearing on state TV to announce that he was handling it "very well."

Amid the rumors, there is one radio host and newspaper columnist who is generating a big following for what seems to be his inside track on Chavez's health.

Filling A Vacuum of Information

Nelson Bocaranda writes a newspaper column called "Murmurs," has more than half a million followers on Twitter, runs a website and has a popular evening radio show, The Happy Traffic Jam, with co-host Mariela Celis. Each night, the show features two hours of banter, interviews and music.

Venezuelan radio host Nelson Bocaranda (right) anchors his evening talk show, The Happy Traffic Jam, with co-host Mariela Celis in Caracas during a recent March broadcast. i i

Venezuelan radio host Nelson Bocaranda (right) anchors his evening talk show, The Happy Traffic Jam, with co-host Mariela Celis in Caracas during a recent March broadcast. Juan Forero/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Forero/NPR
Venezuelan radio host Nelson Bocaranda (right) anchors his evening talk show, The Happy Traffic Jam, with co-host Mariela Celis in Caracas during a recent March broadcast.

Venezuelan radio host Nelson Bocaranda (right) anchors his evening talk show, The Happy Traffic Jam, with co-host Mariela Celis in Caracas during a recent March broadcast.

Juan Forero/NPR

And every night, the show draws more and more listeners. One major reason for its popularity is some of the details Bocaranda, a journalist for 50 years, is reporting about Chavez's medical condition and treatments.

In recent weeks, for instance, Bocaranda announced on his show that Chavez, recuperating from surgery in Cuba, would be home within 48 hours.

Two days later, "El Comandante" was back in Caracas, where he was met at the airport with military honors and a band playing the national anthem. Moments after gingerly getting off his plane, in remarks carried on national television, Chavez said his operation had taken place on Feb. 26 and had been a success.

"Over two weeks and a bit more, I've been in a process of recuperation and continue to recuperate," Chavez said. He then said he has to be disciplined and follow his doctors' orders.

Venezuelans, though, still don't know what kind of tumor was removed in his first surgery last June or in February. Nor do they know where the tumor was located, though Chavez has said it was in his "pelvic area."

That's only added to the uncertainty as Chavez faces the most serious political challenge in his 13 years of rule — a tough re-election campaign against a youthful opponent, Henrique Capriles. The two candidates have been battling each other in recent polls ahead of Venezuela's elections, scheduled for October.

Luis Vicente Leon, an analyst and pollster, says there's a vacuum of information — and a rumor mill on overdrive.

"Everybody wants to know what is happening. Everybody wants to have information, but we don't have real information, serious, formal, official information," says Leon.

Bocaranda, who is 66 and started in journalism at 16, says he depends on trusted sources in Cuba and beyond.

Government Confirms Bocaranda

In June, Bocaranda reported that Chavez had cancer, before Chavez himself admitted it. Then in February, the radio host tweeted about a recurrence — later confirmed by the president.

"They call me and they give information because they trust me," Bocaranda says.

On a recent night, as Bocaranda arrives at a restaurant, he is mobbed by diners. One of them, Manases Capriles (no relation Henrique Capriles), calls Bocaranda Venezuela's "Minister of Information."

"Bocaranda tells us what's happening in the country," says Capriles, "and later government ministers and the president confirm what he's just told us."

There aren't such kind words for Bocaranda from Mario Silva, host of La Hojilla (The Razor) on state TV, which is the main vehicle the government uses for attacks on its enemies. On a show earlier this year, Silva calls Bocaranda "garbage" and "a despicable rat."

Yet in one poor neighborhood that's a Chavez stronghold, people follow Bocaranda. One of those familiar with Bocaranda's revelations is Felix Garcia, a Chavez supporter, who has mixed feelings about reporters covering the president's health.

He says Chavez's condition is the issue of the day. But he also says that everyone — even the president — has the right to privacy.

Not all agree.

Ana Gasperi, who runs a restaurant, says she wants to know more about Chavez's health. Though supportive of Chavez, she says he has a duty as president to inform the country, "to tell us what is happening to him."

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