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.
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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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently returned home after another surgery in Cuba. He's suffering from cancer, but little is known about his health beyond what information he provides. And that has rumors and speculations swirling, especially with a presidential election approaching in October. One man in Venezuela has been generating a big following for what he's revealing about Chavez's health.
And from Caracas, NPR's Juan Forero has history.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)
NELSON BOCARANDA: (Foreign language spoken)
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Nelson Bocaranda's evening radio show with co-host Mariela Celis is popular; two hours of banter, interviews and music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FORERO: And one reason is that Bocaranda, a journalist for 50 years, seems to have the inside track on some details of Chavez's health. Nuggets like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)
BOCARANDA: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: ...in which Bocaranda reveals that Chavez, recuperating from surgery in Cuba, will be home within 48 hours. Two days later, El Comandante is back here in Caracas, where he's met with military honors and the national anthem.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF VENEZUELA NATIONAL ANTHEM)
FORERO: Chavez then says in a nationally televised speech that his operation was a success and had taken place on February 26th.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Venezuelans, though, still don't know what kind of tumor was removed in his first surgery last June or this time around. 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.
Luis Vicente Leon, an analyst and pollster, says there's a vacuum of information and a rumor mill on overdrive.
LUIS VICENTE LEON: Everybody wants to know what's happening. Everybody wants to have information. But we don't have a real information, serious, formal, official information.
FORERO: Nelson Bocaranda says he depends on trusted sources in Cuba. Aside from his radio show, he has a column called Murmurs, a website, and a Twitter account with more than half a million followers. Two of his scoops stand out.
He reported in June that Chavez had cancer before Chavez himself admitted it. And then in February, he issued tweets reporting a recurrence, later confirmed by Chavez.
BOCARANDA: Only the facts; he's going to be operate, he has this or so, so, so. And then, the same happened this time. They called me and they give me information because they trust me after how I behave since June until today. You know?
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
FORERO: On a recent night, as Bocaranda arrives at a restaurant, he's mobbed by diners. One is Manases Capriles who calls Bocaranda the Minister of Information.
MANASES CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: 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. He's host of "The Razor" on state TV, which is the main vehicle the government uses for attacks on its enemies. Here's a clip from YouTube.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
MARIO SILVA: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Garbage, a homosexual, a despicable rat - that's what Silva calls Bocaranda in a recent show.
But in one poor neighborhood that's a Chavez stronghold, people follow Bocaranda. It's not hard to find them at an outdoor restaurant, where they're enjoying cold beer and salsa on a recent night. One of those familiar with Bocaranda's revelations is Felix Garcia, a Chavez supporter. He says the president's health is the issue of the day.
FELIX GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: But he also says everyone, even Chavez, has the right to privacy.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.