CARACAS, Venezuela — The political future of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's socialist experiment hangs on a critical issue: Just how sick is he?
The 56-year-old ailing president told a stunned nation Thursday night that he has cancer, but he did not say what kind or at what stage. Doctors consulted in Miami and Venezuela agree that from the few details Chávez shared, he most likely has colon cancer and could face treatment for the next eight to nine months.
"What struck me is that at one point during his announcement, he misspoke and said 'evolution' instead of 'evaluation.' He corrected himself, but it was odd that in a video that was so staged — complete with props of the Venezuelan flag and a painting of Simon Bolivar — they did not do a re-take," said Douglas Leon, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation.
"What does that say? To me, it says he can only stand up for about 20 minutes, and they couldn't let him stand for the time it would take to do it over."
In his announcement Thursday night, the former paratrooper read from a prepared text that said he had a cancerous tumor removed while on a trip to Cuba last month. And while he hinted that he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, Chávez did not reveal the prognosis, or say when he would return to Venezuela. He has been gone three weeks.
At noon Friday, the government broadcast nearly an hour of footage of Chávez meeting with his brother, Barinas Gov. Adan Chávez, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and armed forces chief Henry Rangel Silva.
"Here we are, making decisions," Chávez said, noting the date: Wednesday, June 29. "My first duty as a revolutionary is to fully regain my health."
He appeared more cheerful discussing new roads and tractors than he did when delivering the news about the pelvic abscess that led to the cancer discovery.
The presence of an abscessed tumor is not a good sign, said Dr. Thomas George Jr., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida and a specialist in gastrointestinal cancers.
"This is usually because the cancer is fairly aggressive. This could be a variety of different cancers — none of them good."
The top possibility, he said, would be colorectal cancer, followed by prostate, bladder, or perhaps a sarcoma — a soft tissue cancer.
"Prostate would probably be the best option in terms of prognosis," he said.
He also said it's possible that the original abscess drainage procedure itself could have contaminated the area with cancer cells. Treatment, doctors agreed, would be aggressive radiation and chemotherapy.
"Prostate tumors normally do not cause this kind of abscess," said Leon Lapco, president of the Venezuelan-American Doctors Association and a surgeon at Mercy Hospital in Miami. "I would say it's his colon, the large intestine. It's the most likely to cause diverticulitis, perforations and abscesses."
In Caracas, about 100 people gathered Friday morning to rally in solidarity of Chávez. In sharp contrast to the days thousands of Chávistas would flock to the streets to defend him from antigovernment rallies, city streets were calm. Many people interviewed had not even heard the news.
At midday, about 20 elderly people gathered under a tent in the downtown Plaza Bolivar to sing his praises.
The prospect of a prolonged health crisis could become a factor in the 2012 presidential elections, in which polls showed Chávez in a dead heat against opposition candidates.
In a country where the political system is so clearly identified with a polarizing firebrand, analysts say it will be difficult for the president's "socialist revolution" to continue without him.
"There is no Chávismo without Chávez," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University. "It is a personal project, and it lives and ends with him."