Hugo Chávez rode in an open-top motorcade to the international airport in Caracas on 24 February, his vehicle plastered with an image of Christ and the procession flanked by supporters. The Venezuelan president was on his way to Havana to receive treatment for a recurrence of the cancer
that left his government rudderless last year.
“I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, 'Chávez, rise, it is not time to die, it's time to live,'" the socialist maverick said as he prepared to board the plane. Though his charisma and PR skills are as strong as ever, his health is not, and this year will bring his most hotly fought election yet. "I'm a human being. I'm not immortal," the 57-year-old said. "Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped."
With those words, Chávez, for the first time in his 13-year tenure, admitted that the "revolution", styled very much in his own image, could continue without him. Since the former paratrooper was first elected president, Venezuelans haven't so much supported political parties or an ideology as backed a personality.
Illness couldn't have come at a worse time for the populist president. An organised and united opposition has just chosen the young, charismatic Henrique Capriles Radonski as its leader to take on Chávez in October's presidential election. The 39-year-old state governor won with 64 per cent of more than three million votes, showing a momentum that the opposition hasn't enjoyed in years.
Chávez is concerned. "We're going to pulverise you," he said, welcoming Capriles to the ring. "You're a lowlife pig." The government's machinery is also cranking up a smear campaign. On state media soon after the vote, Capriles's Jewish roots were attacked in an online essay titled "The Enemy is Zionism", and a television personality read out what he said was a police report alleging that Capriles was caught performing oral sex on another man in 2000.
Capriles is smart enough to know not to respond directly. Though Venezuela has one of the world's worst murder rates, 26 per cent inflation and regular power outages, Chávez remains popular in the barrios, and it is there that Capriles must win over voters. The new opposition leader is fighting a calculated campaign, never mentioning or attacking Chávez directly.
Instead, Capriles praises Brazil's leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, credited with reviving the Brazilian economy. Those who doubt Capriles's sincerity point to his wealthy background and historically centre-right leanings.
The tide in Venezuela does seem to be turning. Watched over by murals of Che Guevara, Chávez and a dozen other left-wing heroes, hundreds turned out to vote in the primaries in Caracas's 23 de Enero barrio, until now regarded as a Chávez stronghold.
“Chávez has only one idea," said a 64-year-old fruit-seller, Roberto González, as he chopped up a malanga. "We need various ideas, because that's democracy." In the nearby slum of Antímano, Yesman Utrera, a 24-year-old student who once supported Chávez, stumbled down a set
of shoddy steps. "People believe that Chávez is their Christ and came to save us," Utrera said, “but it's not like that."