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 travelled 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."
"There's a media war marked by a game of lies," Britto said, adding that he thinks the bulk of Venezuelans "trust in the information they've been given."
In recent weeks, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua have assured Venezuelans the president is lucid, sharing laughs and making decisions of state. Meanwhile, Maduro announced last week that unidentified groups have been plotting an attack against himself or National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
In the president's absence, state television has been saturated with images of a smiling Chavez, and Caracas has been covered with iconography such as the president's eyes and slogans.
Pro-government artists recently mounted an exhibit of portraits of their leader at a museum in downtown Caracas.
Antonio Pasquali, a retired professor and communication scholar, said that the government seems to be trying to make Chavez a political symbol more than ever. Among the spectacles on view this month was a mass swearing-in by Chavez's supporters who raised their hands and took an oath in their leader's place during a street demonstration.
One government billboard atop a Caracas high-rise reads: "You're Chavez, too."
"There is nothing improvised here. The government calculates every word they use down to the millimeter," Pasquali said.
Evangelina Garcia-Prince, a sociologist and anthropologist, said the government's new slogan, "We're all Chavez," reminds her of a famous phrase by Evita Peron that has lived on in Argentina: "I'll return, and there will be millions of me."
"Like every myth, it's rooted in emotion with a strong dose of spirituality," Garcia-Prince said of the Chavez aura.
Many aren't buying the myth. A political cartoon by Rayma Suprani in the newspaper El Universal mocked some efforts to keep Chavez ever-present by displaying documents with his signature, showing Maduro handing a pen to a small Chavez puppet, with the caption: "Give me the pen, I'm going to sign!"
"It's a real farce," said Javier Vidal, a playwright and theatre director. "This masquerade is born from the tragedy we're living through, which is quite big."
Past events and characters in Chavez's presidency have already inspired a soap opera, "Cosita Rica," which was written by Padron and produced in 2003. The character of Olegario Perez, played by Carlos Cruz, was the alter ego of Chavez and captured some of his gestures and unpredictable, colorful nature.
Chavez and events in his presidency have also been fodder for Venezuelan comedians.
The satirical website El Chiguire Bipolar, which regularly pokes fun at Chavez, recently posted a spoof of a report by the president's information minister: "Chavez is stable in that situation, which I won't tell you what it is."
For the most part, though, the saga of Chavez's health struggle is still fresh and hasn't made its way into fiction in Venezuelan theatres, books or television.
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a media studies scholar and associate professor at the University of Georgia, said the situation reminds her of her 2007 book about the program "Cosita Rica," titled "Venezuela es una telenovela," or "Venezuela is a Soap Opera."
"This twist of the plot that we are living right now is — wow — surprising, it's surreal," she said. "Sometimes I wish Gabriel Garcia Marquez were young again and Venezuelan so he could write about this, because sometimes it feels like magical realism."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.