By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's government urged Venezuelans on Wednesday to ignore rumors the socialist leader's health may be worse than the official version that he is in good condition after surgery in Cuba.
Despite allies' upbeat assessment of his latest operation, some sources including a prominent pro-opposition Venezuelan journalist are suggesting the 57-year-old may face a life-threatening spread - or metastasis - of the cancer discovered last year.
That would throw into doubt Chavez's campaign for re-election in October and his capacity to rule afterwards should he win, as well as send shockwaves round a region where Cuba and other leftist governments count on his oil-fuelled largesse.
"Our people should not pay attention to these rumors. We are going through a very emotional time," Isis Ochoa, the minister for social protection, told state TV.
"People should keep trusting in their leaders."
The government blames Venezuela's "ultra-right" for fomenting speculation that Chavez's health is deteriorating.
"Ever since the news that President Chavez was ill, they tried to conjure up a sense of a vacuum," Ochoa said, urging his supporters to show "combativeness" in counteracting this.
Having exuded strength and energy since storming to power as an election outsider in 1998, Chavez's public image and personal ebullience suffered a big blow last year when doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his pelvis.
JOURNALIST HATE FIGURES
Although he said he was fully recovered toward the end of 2011, the president returned to Cuba for new surgery last weekend on a probably-malignant "lesion" in the same area.
The government said the lesion was completely removed and that he is recovering well at a Havana hospital, with tests due soon on the extracted tissue to determine the full picture.
There has been no word on when Chavez will return, prompting opposition calls for a replacement to be named.
Nelson Bocaranda, an anti-Chavez Venezuelan journalist who broke the news of his return to Cuba, and Merval Pereira, a well-known commentator for Brazil's O Globo network, have been quoting medical sources to suggest the Venezuelan leader's situation is much more serious than the official version.
The pair have become hate figures among Chavez allies, while opposition supporters have mocked the lack of details from the government by dubbing Bocaranda as the country's only "information minister."
Experts say the pathology results from Chavez's operation on Monday may take up to five days, while a normal recuperation period from that type of surgery would be a week to 10 days.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro has long been Chavez's mentor, and the Venezuelan leader prefers receiving treatment in Havana where there is high security and a lower chance of his medical details being leaked on the tightly controlled island.
His rival for the October 7 election is Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor who hopes to woo former Chavez voters with a promise of a Brazilian-style "modern left" government.
Before the announcement that he would need more surgery, opinion polls showed Venezuelans broadly split - a third pro-Chavez, a third pro-opposition and a third undecided.
But the polls indicate Chavez has the edge in voter enthusiasm due to his popularity among Venezuela's poor and an increase in welfare spending for the most needy.
While the president may get a "sympathy bump" in opinion polls from his latest health setback, analysts say perceptions of weakness - particularly in contrast with Capriles' youthful image - could offset that.
The OPEC nation's widely traded bonds have jumped on investor perceptions of a more market-friendly opposition's enhanced chance of winning the presidential poll in October.
Chavez has avoided grooming a successor, so rumors abound as to who from his inner circle could take over if he were incapacitated. Two heavyweight allies, Vice President Elias Jaua and Congress head Diosdado Cabello, are widely rumored to be at odds. But they made a public show of friendship in parliament on Tuesday, smiling and pledging unity behind their "Comandante."
But neither man, nor any other of Chavez's closest allies, have his man-of-the-people charisma or the political talents that have enabled him to thwart the opposition for 13 years.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Eric Beech)