Hugo Chavez: One year battling cancer
By Jorge Silva
About a year ago, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez surprised us during a routine coverage at his Miraflores palace in Caracas. He appeared with a walking cane.
That was the first time he had ever shown any hint of a physical problem, or indeed any notion of fragility. A few days after that, he left on a tour of Ecuador, Brazil and Cuba where he was hospitalized and received emergency surgery in Havana. Weeks later, Chavez confirmed that a malignant, baseball-sized tumor had been removed from his pelvis, and the saga began.
I’ve been covering Chavez for the last eight years – a long, grueling but utterly fascinating assignment for a photojournalist.
Chavez had always looked indefatigable. We got used to the massive crowds, the long emotional speeches, and the permanent campaigning. We followed him as he crossed the country far-and-wide. We ran behind him during strenuous tours where he invariably broke protocol and security, always witty and improvised. We learned to guess his mood from behind the camera.
Today, things are different. As he said the other day: “Unfortunately I won’t continue to be the same runaway horse.” The times have changed for him and for us.
In the last 12 months, the pace and nature of coverage has changed greatly. Surrounded by rumors about his health, Chavez has spent more than 100 days receiving treatment in Cuba, during a dozen different trips to Havana.
We’ve only had 50 opportunities to photograph him in the last year – whereas in the past he was out-and-about every day, often several times at several different places. We’ve only had seven chances to see him since his latest relapse in February when he announced a recurrence of cancer and the need for new surgery. So for images, we have mostly depended on the photo handouts from his press team. More than 100 scenes received by email or Twitter have served also as “proof of life” to stop waves of speculation and rumors.
Nevertheless, in spite of his physical absence, Chavez and his figure continue to be the center of attention for Venezuelans. He’s omnipresent. His image is everywhere on TV along with street graffiti and posters at political rallies or religious services held to pray for his recovery. Supporters wear his image on caps, badges and T-shirts. Above all, he’s always present in discussions and conversations that in some way or another, begin and end with him.
He’s become a symbol.
Now, we’re four months away from the October 7th election, and faced with covering an atypical campaign. Without a doubt, today more than ever, politics are synonymous with perception, and Chavez has to create an image that convinces voters he will be healthy enough to take on a new mandate.
Ever the wily politician, he knows that the impetus of his 13-year-rule and his still enormous personal popularity may be enough for his re-election. The fact that we don’t see him much campaigning on the streets is turning him into a “virtual” candidate.
Chavez remains the main source of information and pictures from his government-revolution, but he’s just not as accessible as in the old days.
Symbols of Chavez, and his physical presence or absence, will be the central topics during the electoral war that begins right now, a year into his battle against cancer.