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Caracas, Venezuela - They run around the clock on state television, highly polished videos of President Hugo Chavez hugging children, kissing grandmothers, playing baseball and reciting poetry. As supporters around the world hold up hand-lettered signs that say, "I Am Chavez," the president's voice is heard in one of them shouting, "I demand absolute loyalty because I am not me, I am not an individual, I am a people!"
In reality, officials say, Chavez lies in a Cuban hospital bed, struggling through complications from cancer surgery while his country heads toward a constitutional showdown over his absence.
Chavez's fragile health has thrown Venezuela into political uncertainty. After being re-elected in October, he is supposed to be sworn in for the start of his new term on Thursday, but the charismatic leader who has dominated every aspect of government here for 14 years may be too ill to return in time, much less continue in office for the next six years. Top government officials insist that the swearing-in is just a formality. The opposition says the constitution requires that Chavez be present or, in his absence, that a process begin that could lead to new elections.
The government's television barrage seems intent on reassuring anyone who might raise questions that Chavez is still very much the head of the nation. By keeping his image front and center, analysts say, the government can bolster its position as the caretaker of his legacy, mobilize its supporters for the battle over interpreting the constitution and build momentum for itself in elections should Chavez die or prove too sick to govern.
"They have combined the mechanisms of left wing struggle with the best marketing team there is," said J.J. Rendon, a political consultant who opposes the government, comparing the saga over Chavez's illness to a telenovela, one of the popular Latin American soap operas.
Before he left for surgery in Cuba, Chavez announced that if new elections were needed, he wanted Vice President Nicolas Maduro to run as his party's candidate. On Monday, Maduro reiterated the stance that the swearing-in did not matter because Chavez was re-elected, so his government continues uninterrupted.
Opposition leaders say that under the constitution, if Chavez is unable to be sworn in on Thursday the head of the National Assembly should become caretaker president. The Assembly head, Diosdado Cabello, a close ally of Chavez, has rejected that interpretation.