CARACAS, Venezuela - A president who vanishes for weeks in a mysterious battle with cancer. Supporters who chant their allegiance in the streets. And in the midst of it all, an announcement by the government that it detected a plot to kill his chosen successor.
The long and at times surreal saga surrounding the illness of President Hugo Chavez has many Venezuelan writers and intellectuals likening the nation's drama to a soap opera. Venezuela has long produced such telenovelas, and some say no one could have imagined a more bizarre plot than the one that has unfolded in the more than seven weeks since Chavez traveled to Cuba for his operation and disappeared from public view.
"Reality in Venezuela has turned implausible. It's hard to believe that these events are happening, where each one exceeds the last one, and where our capacity to be amazed is being constantly challenged," said Leonardo Padron, a writer of Venezuelan telenovelas and a critic of Chavez's government.
The dramatic turns come after 14 years of a presidency already filled with surprises, conflicts and triumphs, including Chavez's brief ouster in a failed 2002 coup and his rebellious speech to the United Nations calling then-President George W. Bush "the devil."
Chavez has monopolized the attention of Venezuelans by cultivating a larger-than-life image, and many are stunned by the unusual silence from a president who used to make hours-long speeches almost every day.
The split between Venezuelans who admire and revile him extends to this country's artists, dramatists and intellectuals.
"To put it in the point of view of a playwright, of a storyteller, it's evident that in this country the protagonist was Chavez and the theme is that this story has been left without a protagonist," Padron said. "There has been an excess of culminating episodes. We want for them to announce the final week and the final chapter. I think everybody wants the denouement to happen, whatever it is, but it should happen."
Essayist and playwright Luis Britto Garcia, a vocal supporter of Chavez, said it's understandable that Venezuelans are receiving mixed messages as Chavez goes through treatment. He complained about what he said was baseless speculation in the media about the president, which he said intends to "destabilize the country."