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Chávez' supporters ask: How can our superman be ill?

To his supporters, Hugo Chávez is far more than just a president.

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Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez pray for his health in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, July 1, after he announced he had received treatment for a tumor.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

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As Hugo Chávez graces the big screen in a rowdy city center bar in Caracas, Santiago Valledare stands up and salutes, with no hint of irony.

After a completely uncharacteristic three-week silence, his president is about to announce that he has received treatment for a tumor while in Cuba. After watching the president’s subdued statement, Valledare stands firm: “My Comandante doesn't have cancer. It’s not true,” he says, still standing. “He is the best president we have ever had.... [He is] a strong man. He is not ill.”

Other so-called Chavistas in the bar share similar sentiments. Nearby, workers paint a wall, having just watched the same 15-minute appearance. "This is a lie.... I don't know why he said it but it's not true," insists Luis, as he takes a break to discuss the news with colleagues.

To his supporters, Chávez is a larger than life figure, someone whose defiance of the US and preaching of social justice has transformed Venezuelan society. But his socialist revolution has been built around his popularity and personality, and there is no one on the horizon who could take his place, which could mean another radical political shift for Venezuela if his illness proves serious.

“For Chavistas it is very tough to accept that their supreme leader is no longer the strongman,” suggests Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “His human frailties have been exposed. For his avid followers there is no one else, only Chávez.”

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