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How do you campaign against a cancer victim?

In a dramatic speech today from his home state of Barinas, Hugo Chávez seemed to confirm that his cancer has returned. Offering no details, and with his visibly-shaken daughter and ministers standing by, he told the nation that doctors in Cuba had found "a lesion" in his pelvis, in the same area where was operated on a few months ago. He announced he needed to undergo surgery again for further evaluation.

This development is sure to shake up an already interesting presidential race.

A year ago, those of us who obsess over Venezuelan politics thought we knew the story line of the October 2012 presidential election. It was supposed to be about the twelve years of the Hugo Chávez era and whether the opposition was mature enough to take the reins.

Then, late in June, the plot changed. In an awkward speech from Havana, Chávez (shown above in a meeting with U.S. actor Sean Penn on Feb. 16) confirmed that doctors had removed a tumor from his pelvis.

Since early July, Chávez has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy. But neither the president nor his medical team has explained the type of cancer he has, where exactly it is located, or the specifics of his treatment, much less his prognosis.

Instead, he has repeated time and again that he is cured. Until today, that is.

Up until now, Chávez had responded to questions on his health by going on the offensive. He repeatedly framed calls for transparency on his health "obscene," and slammed those who take "morbid pleasure" in his health issues.

Today, he talked about how the Revolution will go on without him.

A swirl of rumors took Twitter by storm over the weekend. Experienced journalists said that he was in Cuba undergoing tests, and that his condition had worsened. Two high-profile government ministers denied the allegations today. Hours later, in typically disorganized chavista fashion, Chávez himself confirmed them.

The opposition's presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, who is currently riding a wave of momentum from his impressive Primary win, mostly shies away from the subject. He has publicly wished Chávez well, while sheepishly calling for more transparency before abruptly changing the topic, fearful of a backlash.

Behind closed doors, his advisors are concerned. The uncertainty prevents consensus on strategy. They fear that if they make cancer an issue, Chávez will use his storied communication skills to play the sympathy card and eke out a win -- either for himself or a designated successor. They are also wary of the disease forcing Capriles off his well-rehearsed message of reconciliation and progress in a post-Chávez Venezuela.

Of special concern is the scenario of a disabled Chávez. While the Venezuelan constitution is clear on what happens if the President dies suddenly, it is less so on what happens if he becomes incapacitated. An extended agony by the President could yield a power vacuum that could spur extremists in the military to make a grab for power.

The opposition has no choice but to stay on message and plow through. An election against an entrenched incumbent who controls all public institutions, the media, and has billions of petro-dollars in his wallet was always going to be a David-versus-Goliath affair. The uncertainty surrounding his health, and the tricky messaging situation it generates, threatens to change the playing field altogether.

Chávez's announcement is an unwelcome complication -- both for the president and his opponents. The opposition's message was starting to gain its footing, but now Chávez's cancer is sure to dominate the conversation. This was the last thing the opposition needed.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

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