Venezuelans flock to columnist for news on Chavez cancer


In a country with little information on President Hugo Chavez's cancer, Venezuelans are increasingly turning to Nelson Bocaranda, a radio commentator and columnist who has broken major news about the populist leader's condition. ( Juan Forero/WASHINGTON POST)
March 17, 2012

Some Venezuelans cannot get enough of Nelson Bocaranda, a mild-mannered radio reporter and gossip columnist who has been dishing up inside information on President Hugo Chavez’s cancer.

While the government has said little about the president’s ordeal, Bocaranda’s dribs and drabs, via Twitter, a Web site and a newspaper column, have revealed major developments. That has infuriated officials who say the author of the “Murmurs” column in El Universal is destabilizing the country ahead of an October presidential election that Chavez has vowed to win despite his illness.

“Despicable rat,” Mario Silva, the caustic host of “The Razor” on state television, said of Bocaranda.

“Perhaps someone pays him to write his lies?” asked Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly.

Andres Izarra, the government’s information minister, called Bocaranda’s revelations part of a “psychological war, a war of rumors,” and said that Chavez has dealt with the situation “with total transparency.”

And to a degree, the president has, telling the nation he had a tumor removed in June in Cuba, followed by chemotherapy. Chavez also announced he had been cured of cancer — until a recurrence sent him back to Cuba for a third surgery that took place on Feb. 26.

On Friday, 19 days later, Chavez returned to Venezuela, sounding optimistic about a future that includes a challenging reelection campaign against a young and spirited opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles.

“I am going to live, we are going to live, we are going to continue to overcome,” said Chavez, 57, in a half-hour address televised nationwide.

Bocaranda, though, said the government has revealed little, noting that Chavez still has not said what kind of tumor he had or where it was located. He said the president’s health is fair game, explaining that Chavez is an omnipresent figure who controls all Venezuelan institutions.

“This is a man who is the whole government, the man who has the whole congress, the whole supreme court, everything, all the powers,” Bocaranda, 66, who wears heavy glasses and slicks his gray hair back, said in an interview after his nightly radio show. “I think that is why his health is most important for us.”

With only Chavez himself releasing information about his cancer, the country has become rife with rumors as Venezuelans argue over whether the president will be able to carry out a grueling campaign schedule.

“I think this is classic,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster and political analyst. “When a society faces a vacuum of information over an issue that is relevant, then it fills the vacuum with rumors.”

In one of the president’s strongholds — a vast neighborhood of towering apartment blocks called 23 of January for the date in 1958 when Venezuela’s last dictator was ousted — residents on a recent day drank beer at an open-air restaurant and argued over how the president should handle his privacy vs. the public’s need to know.

“The president’s health worries everyone and more so because he’s the top leader, the No. 1 authority,” said Felix Garcia, a former sportswriter who, like many here, is on a state payroll. “Still, I think, there is a privacy issue, privacy for anyone, even Chavez.”

Celia Fernandez, relaxing with Garcia, quickly chimed in: “But he is a public figure, the primary leader, and the people he represents need more information.”

And to get some of that information, some say, they closely read Bocaranda.

In June, he was the first to reveal that Chavez had cancer, which the president confirmed days later in a dramatic televised speech. Then, in the early morning hours of Feb. 20, Bocaranda issued a series of tweets reporting a recurrence of cancer, which Chavez confirmed the next day.

That last scoop generated 80,000 more followers to @NelsonBocaranda, where he now has nearly 570,000 readers.

Bocaranda said he uses five phones and 10 SIM cards, as well as his BlackBerry, e-mail and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, to collect information from sources. He has said his sources are in Cuba and suggested some are close to the president.

Walking into a restaurant on a recent weekend night, Bocaranda was mobbed by diners who wanted to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him.

“He’s like a rock star,” said Mariela Celis, who co-hosts “The Happy Traffic Jam” on Union Radio with Bocaranda. “He has to say hello to people at 10 tables and the waiters and the head waiter. And everyone then asks, ‘Hey what do you know? How’s Chavez? How’s this going to turn out?’ ”

Indeed, moments after shaking Bocaranda’s hand, one loyal reader, Manases Capriles, 42, a lawyer, said, “He is the minister of information, working in the shadows. He is the official voice of Venezuela.”

His friend Fidel Montanez, 41, also a lawyer, said that “while the government works at disinformation, it is through Nelson Bocaranda that you get to know the truth.”

With Venezuela’s government facing a raft of crises, from an oil spill that polluted drinking water to divisions within Chavez’s Socialist Party, the president on the surface appears to be facing a taxing year.

That is not lost on his challenger in the upcoming election, Henrique Capriles, who on Thursday appeared to defy Chavez to keep up with him. “Where will I take advantage? What is my strength? Running around the country,” said Capriles, 39, who plays up his hobbies of basketball and long-distance running.

Chavez, meanwhile, said in a Saturday speech that he will undergo radiation therapy, which may slow his normally feverish pace on the campaign trail.

Even so, the president remains formidable, controlling a large media apparatus and using his considerable charm to appeal to voters on television, said Leon, the analyst. “It is not the same,” Leon said, “but the truth is that for Chavez, it is not as necessary to tour the country as it is for Capriles.”

Upon his return to Caracas, Chavez declared his operation a success and said he came home with an “indomitable strength, a celestial strength, a strength that is more than human.”

But recounting a conversation with Fidel Castro, whom he considers a father figure, Chavez said he had to be focused on his recuperation.

“He told me, ‘Chavez, I know you. Tell your people that you have to be disciplined. They will understand, so no one thinks this has passed,’ ” Chavez said. “We are overcoming, but we need to be rigorously disciplined.”

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