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In 13 years of colorful, often demagogic rule, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has at times run his country like a game show host, in daily TV appearances, he's announced land seizures, heaped scorn on the U.S. and sung folk songs. Then cancer struck, forcing Chavez to scale back. As NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas, Chavez has now reappeared and is preparing to run for re-election in October, but his countrymen are wondering: Just how sick is he?

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: The crowds came out by the thousands, flooding the streets in red T-shirts, just as Venezuela's populist government had promised. And then Hugo Chavez, the country's bigger-than-life leader, age 57, took to the stage. He had arrived in an open truck, minutes after registering as a candidate for the October 7th election.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: For a moment, the man in the red beret looked like the leader of old: energetic, strong, unstoppable, oozing charisma. He sang to the crowd.

CHAVEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: He also told his followers, here I am again and, in your name, in the name of the fatherland, I've registered as a candidate for another six year term.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The Chavez who appeared Monday is not the one Venezuelans have become accustomed to seeing since last June. That's when a tumor was discovered in his pelvic region. Since then, there were two operations to extract the tumor, chemotherapy, a recurrence, another surgery and radiation therapy. And, suddenly, the man who had ruled in front of the TV cameras was rarely seen.

Venezuelans, though, had been largely left in the dark, says Miguel Otero. He's editor of the newspaper El Nacional.

MIGUEL OTERO: The real condition, nobody knows. It's a closed subject for everybody because they manage it in a very secret way, but everybody knows he's sick because his performance as president is about one-tenth of what it was before.

FORERO: Since his last surgery in February, Chavez has spent much of his time in Cuba undergoing treatment. Instead of speaking to the public, his ministers have read his tweets to crowds. Chavez also phones in to government-run broadcasts.

In a recent state television spot, he was shown gingerly walking in the presidential palace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: Soft music played as the camera panned from head to toe, as if to assure viewers that it was him.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: In a televised mass, he fought back tears as he asked God to spare his life. Officially, the government says he's fine. Jorge Rodriguez, Chavez's campaign manager, told NPR there's no doubt Chavez will be the government's candidate against challenger Henrique Capriles.

JORGE RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We'll see each other on October 8th, Rodriguez says, and we'll confirm what I'm saying now, that Chavez is going to deliver a big beating to Capriles.

Still, some of those who've been closely following the saga say Chavez may be in serious trouble. Dr. Ramon Orihuela is a former health minister here. He says the recurring tumor discovered in February was not a good sign.

RAMON ORIHUELA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I think the president is gravely ill, but not on his death bed, says Orihuela. He believes the president may be able to campaign, though on a limited basis.

Back in the streets where Chavez's supporters gathered to hear him speak, his illness seemed to be forgotten for now.

Marbella Pineda came decked out in red to cheer on El Comandante, as she calls him.

MARBELLA PINEDA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I'm not worried, she says, because I believe God is going to protect him and he'll beat this illness.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.

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