Unless you’re one of the whackos who puts politics before people, you’ll wish Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez the best as he readies to undergo a second round of cancer surgery. On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Chávez conceded that his Cuban doctors had found a new lesion in his pelvic area, where they’d removed a tumor last summer. Chávez scoffed at reports that his cancer, which he refuses to identify, “has spread all over my body and that I’m already dying.” But Tuesday’s announcement, coming after months of insistence from Chávez that he was cancer free – and less than eight months before Venezuela’s Oct. 7 presidential vote – threw his re-election bid into further doubt.
In fact, even before Tuesday, the firebrand socialist seemed rattled, not by his oncologist but by his opposition. Last week – after Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, a centrist, took 64% of the vote to win a unified opposition primary election to determine who will challenge Chávez in October – it became apparent that the President, who has ruled Venezuela for 13 years, for once faces credible competition. When Chávez is feeling confident, his trademark insolence toward foes can at least be witty. But when he’s politically shaken he can get sophomorically vulgar, as he did in 2007 when he called an opposition referendum victory “a piece of shit”– and as he did last week when he called out Capriles on state-run television. “You have a pig’s tail, a pig’s ears, you snort like a pig,” Chávez said, addressing Capriles. “You are a low-life pig.” He also questioned the unmarried Capriles’ masculinity, calling him “Mrs. Bourgeois.”
(READ: Challenging Hugo Chavez — can Capriles unseat him?)
Hence the other political cancer that Chávez and his supporters, los Chavistas, need to remove: the caustic rhetoric and character assassination they seem bent on spewing, now that they realize there’s a chance their leftist Bolivarian Revolution might not be el pueblo’s choice next fall. As former TIME Venezuela reporter Charlie Devereux writes in an insightful piece for Bloomberg this week, Chávez’s vast state-run media apparatus is already working overtime not just to defeat but to demonize the 39-year-old Capriles in fairly slanderous fashion. Some of the uglier examples:
Two days before the Feb. 12 opposition primary, Chavista talk-show host Mario Silva, already notorious for his anti-Semitic rants, took the homophobic route. On the state-run Venezolana de Televisión (VTV) network, Silva told viewers that 12 years ago Capriles was caught engaging in oral sex with another man in a car on a Caracas street at 1 a.m. Silva held up a document that he claimed was a police report, which has since become available online – but it rather ham-handedly identifies only Capriles and not the supposed other man. The 2000 cop report has been rendered even more dubious by the fact that the Caracas precinct where it was supposedly filed won’t confirm its existence. Capriles denies any such incident ever took place.
But that doesn’t mean the Chavistas aren’t flirting with the anti-Semitic gambit too. A day after the primary, the website of the state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela published an article headlined “The Enemy is Zionism,” which calls Capriles a tool of Israel because he’s met in the past with a group representing Venezuela’s Jewish community – which is the sort of thing Capriles does because, although he is Roman Catholic, his maternal grandparents were Jewish Holocaust survivors. Other state-run media have run similar pieces.
(READ: The secrets to Capriles’ success.)
Chávez has insisted in the past that his government’s anti-Israel stance shouldn’t be equated with anti-Semitism. Still, high-profile Chavistas often cross that line, as when Silva in 2009 made a point of noting that two opposition student leaders had Jewish last names – “So right away you can see the problem,” he said – or last year, when Manuel Anteliz, a reporter for the state-run Telesur network, ridiculed Maickel Melamed, a disabled Venezuelan running in the New York City Marathon, suggesting Melamed would be a “street cripple” begging for money if he weren’t a “fashionable…mediagenic millionaire Jew.” (Melamed is Jewish but not a millionaire.)
The Chavistas are exploiting Capriles’ Catholicism as well – or rather twisting it, his backers say. A day after the primary, VTV aired a report claiming Capriles belonged to an ultra-conservative Catholic group known as Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) – an organization VTV called a “neo-Nazi sect” that wants to rid the world of “blacks…communists and the poor.” But aside from those not actually being stated goals of TFP, Capriles was never a member of the group. In fact, during the few years it actually had a chapter in Venezuela in the 1970s, Capriles was an infant. Capriles admittedly began his political career with Venezuela’s center-right Social Christian party, COPEI; but in an interview with TIME last month, he laid out the sort of progressive political and religious stances that would likely get him tossed from hardline Catholic groups like TFP or Opus Dei if he really were a member.
But when it comes to Capriles, the Chavista media seem to think it’s OK to pervert reality the way right-wing U.S. media figures like Rush Limbaugh pervert the biography of President Obama. Of course, conservative media in Venezuela – especially gratuitously anti-Chavista networks like Globovisión, which has accused Chávez in the past, with no evidence, of acts like ordering troops to fire on opposition protesters – haven’t been all that innocent when it comes to their own President.
Still, this time around Capriles and the opposition, realizing they can’t afford to alienate pro-Chávez voters, are making a point of not responding in kind to the Chavista dirt. After Chávez made his cancer announcement Tuesday, Capriles said, “I wish [the President] a successful operation, a swift recovery and a long life.” Chávez is betting that the attacks on Capriles will galvanize his base. But the contrast in tone between the two campaigns could instead alienate pro-Chávez voters – away from Chávez. Come October, if that’s the case, Chávez will be fighting not just for his physical health but his political recovery.