Many Venezuelans hopeful about Chavez

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela's vice president said Thursday that Hugo Chavez is still fighting for his life, yet a recent poll says 3 in 5 Venezuelans believe that their president will return to power.

Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez's self-appointed successor, said on television that his boss "is battling there for his health, for his life, and we're accompanying him."

The vice president had characterized Mr. Chavez's condition similarly Dec. 20, saying the president "is fighting a great battle ... for his life, for his health."

Mr. Chavez hasn't spoken or been seen publicly since before his fourth operation in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area.

The government says he has been breathing with the help of a tracheal tube after surviving a serious respiratory infection. It says Mr. Chavez returned Feb. 18 and is at a military hospital in Caracas for continued treatment for "respiratory insufficiency."

Despite speculation by doctors not involved in Mr. Chavez's treatment that it is most likely palliative, designed only to make him more comfortable in his remaining days, many Venezuelans apparently believe -- or want to believe -- that he is on the mend. "The president's prolonged absence and his critical situation have not been converted into massive pessimism about his return," respected pollster Luis Vicente Leon tweeted Thursday.

He said nearly 58 percent of Venezuelans believe that Mr. Chavez will recover, while about 30 percent believe that he will not return to power, and 12.5 percent say they don't know what will happen. One percent, meanwhile, believe that Mr. Chavez was never sick.

Mr. Leon, chief of the Datanalisis polling firm, said in an interview that the Feb. 11 poll of 1,198 people had an error margin of 3 percentage points. He said he thought the poll reflected people's desire not to believe the worst about someone who is dear to them, just as people resist accepting that a close relative might be dying.

Mr. Leon also said he thought reports of government officials holding hours-long meetings with Mr. Chavez had contributed to the belief of many Venezuelans that he would rally. "The government has sent permanent messages that President Chavez will return, that he meets with the vice president for five hours," the pollster noted. He said people don't necessarily believe that, however, as the poll found 44 percent think the government has not been transparent in discussing Mr. Chavez's health.

In his televised remarks, Mr. Maduro called for Venezuelans to keep praying for Mr. Chavez and remain loyal to the committed socialist who has been their president for more than 19 years. On Feb. 15, the government released four photographs of Mr. Chavez lying in a bed in Cuba -- the only images of him published since early December.

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