The obsessive, circular conversations about President Hugo Chavez's health dominate family dinners, plaza chit-chats and social media sites in this country on edge since its larger-than-life leader went to Cuba for emergency cancer surgery more than two weeks ago. The man whose booming voice once dominated the airwaves for hours at a time has not been seen or heard from since.
His lieutenants have consistently assured Venezuelans over the last week that Chavez is slowly on the mend and will be back at the helm of the country he has dominated for 14 years. But when will he be back? Will he be well enough to govern? What type of cancer does he have? Is it terminal? If so, how long does he have to live?
Government officials have not answered any of those questions, leaving Venezuelans to their own speculations. The wildest conspiracy theories run the gamut from those who say there is no proof Chavez is even still alive to those who believe his illness is a made-up play for sympathy.
"Everything has been a mystery. Everyone believes what they want about the status of his health," said Ismael Garcia, a leftist lawmaker who belonged to the Chavez movement until a falling-out a few years ago.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro read out a New Year message from Chavez to Venezuelan troops on Friday, but for the fourth day in a row offered no updates on the president's health. Maduro had announced Monday night that Chavez was walking and doing some exercises.
The uncertainty comes with a sense of urgency because Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10. The government and opposition disagree on what should happen if Chavez can't show up, raising the threat of a destabilizing legal fight. Beyond that, nobody knows if Chavez's deputies, who have long worked under his formidable shadow, can hold the country together if he dies.
Like everything else in this fiercely divided country, what people believe usually depends on where their political loyalty lies. Chavez opponents are mostly convinced that the president has terminal cancer, has known it for a long time and should not have sought re-election in October. His most fervent supporters refuse to believe "El Comandante" will die.
"Chavez is going to live on. He is a very important man. He has transformed the world with his ideology," said Victor Coba, a 48-year-old construction worker standing outside a Caracas church as government officials held a Mass to pray for the leader. "Anyone of us will die first before Chavez."
Coba scurried off to a street corner where officials were handing out a book of photographs of Chavez's recent presidential campaign. The comandante's grinning face looked out from the cover, alongside the slogan "Chavez, the heart of my country."
The same image looms from billboards erected all over Caracas, from freeway medians to the low-income apartment towers being built with Venezuelan oil wealth. Such services for the poor have helped Chavez maintain a core of followers despite high inflation, rampant gun violence, trash-strewn cities and other problems he has failed to fix.
For many, the attachment to Chavez borders on religious reverence. His supporters wish each other "Feliz Chavidad" rather than "Feliz Navidad," or Merry Christmas. Government officials have started talking about Chavez like an omnipresent deity.
"Chavez is this cable car. Chavez is this great mission. The children are Chavez. The women are Chavez. The men are Chavez. We are all Chavez," Maduro said recently while inaugurating a cable car to bring people down from one of the vast slums that creep up Caracas' hillsides. "Comandante, take care of yourself, get better and we will be waiting for you here."
Crowds of red-clad supporters roar their approval each time Maduro reassures them. But on the streets, confusion reigns.
"People say he's going to get better," said Alibexi Birriel, an office manager eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.
Her husband Richard Hernandez shook his head. "No. Most people say Chavez is going to die and that Nicolas Maduro is going to take power."
Birriel paused, chiming in, "Well, some think this whole thing is theater and that there's nothing wrong with him."
Hernandez, who described himself as a Chavez supporter but "not a fanatic," shrugged. "The opposition thinks that if Chavez died they are going to win the elections. That is not going to happen."
There have been some official details. Chavez, 58, first underwent surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer in Cuba in June 2011 and went back this month after tests had found a return of malignant cells in the same area where tumors had already been twice removed. Venezuelan officials said that following a six-hour surgery Dec. 11, Chavez suffered internal bleeding that was stanched and a respiratory infection that was being treated.
Just five months earlier, Chavez had announced he was free of cancer. But he acknowledged the seriousness of his illness earlier before flying to Cuba this month by designating Maduro as his successor and telling his supporters to vote for the vice president should new elections be necessary. Outside doctors have said that judging from the information Chavez has provided, his cancer is likely terminal, though the government has never confirmed that.
On Christmas Eve, Maduro surprised Venezuelans by saying he had spoken to Chavez by telephone and that the president was up and walking. With no other details, that only set off another round of furious speculation.
"I don't think he can be standing up walking," said Dr. Gustavo Medrano, a lung specialist at the Centro Medico hospital in Caracas. "Unless ... there are a lot of lies in this and the surgery was not six hours ... but something else much simpler, much simpler, maybe a half-hour operation, or two hours, something like that and that he is now recovering. That is possible."
Chavez supporters tweeted their relief and joy. Opponents tweeted incredulity. They traded insults in the comment sections of newspaper websites. Some posters demanded to know where the proof was that the president was even still alive. Others wondered if he had ever been sick in the first place. Chavez supporters shot back that the rumor-mongering should stop.
One Chavez foe finally posted on the Ultimas Noticias newspaper website, "Bla, bla, bla ... He's getting better, he's dying, he has nothing, he's strong as a bull, he can't get of bed, all the hypotheses are valid because there is no proof of anything."
Amid the raging rumors, Chavez's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, sent out a Twitter message from Havana last week pleading for it all to stop.
"Respect for my family and especially respect for my people. Enough lies! We are with papa. ALIVE, fighting and recovering. WITH GOD," she wrote.
Teresa Maniglia, a press officer at the presidential palace, has kept up a steady stream of cheerleading tweets.
"CHAVEZ all the time."
That's for sure.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)