Projecting their hopes that an illness could succeed in removing Chavez where military coups and assassination attempts had failed, the right-wing Venezuelan opposition went into overdrive.
They demanded the president step down and hand over power to the vice president.
Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans awaited anxiously, overcome with feelings of confusion and uncertainty about the future of their president.
With Chavez absent from Venezuela for almost a month in June, the much discussed question of what would happen in Venezuela if Chavez was to go almost became more a question of “when” rather than “if”.
Some opposition columnists even joked that with Chavez out of the picture, life had become boring, with nothing much to write about.
Given his overwhelming presence in public life since first being elected in 1998, Venezuela without Chavez just did not seem like Venezuela.
Since coming to power in a landslide election on the back of a platform to do away with neoliberalism and poverty, the Chavez government has overseen a period of dramatic improvement in the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.
As part of this “Bolivarian revolution” to do away with the traditional elite-ruled political system, Chavez has constantly encouraged the people to actively involve themselves in building a new “participatory and protagonist democracy”.
This has included the creation of community and worker councils with the aim of allowing direct participation by the poor majority in the running of public affairs.
The Chavez government policies to redistribute Venezuela’s oil wealth have led to dramatic drops in poverty and the extension of free health care and education to millions of people.
Finally, after much debate and conjecture, Chavez emerged on June 30 from his bed in Cuba to read out a public statement.
He spelled out the details of the operations he had undergone, first to remove a pelvic abscess and then a cancerous tumour that had until then gone undetected.
“This made a second surgery necessary which allowed us to fully remove the tumor,” said Chavez.
“It was a major surgery without complications. After that, I have continued evolving satisfactorily… towards my full recovery.
“In the meantime, I have kept up to date and continue to be informed and in command of the actions of the Bolivarian government, in direct contact with the vice-president, comrade Elias Jaua, and all my government staff.”
Thanking people for the many expressions of solidarity he had received, Chavez stated his conviction “that all that love, all that solidarity, are the most lofty energy which drive and will drive my willingness to vanquish in this new battle that life has put in front of me”.
“I tell you that wanting to speak to you today, as I prepare once again to return, has nothing to do with myself but with you, patriotic people, good people … I urge you to continue together, climbing up to new summits.”
In the early hours of July 4, Chavez arrived backed in Caracas.
With people gathered in front of the presidential palace to see their leader, Chavez came out, as he has so often done, to address his supporters.
Reporting on the mood in the crowd, Venezuelan blogger Reinaldo Iturriza said he could not remember a sense of popular fervour like that which he saw that day:
“Passions overflowing. All crammed in. A truly human sea …”
“The expectation. The impatience. We want to see Chavez!”
“When he finally appears, it is like the man who has risen from the dead. There is much celebration, but also something akin to contained surprise.”
“Some, although very few, begin to leave once he has appeared. They have seen him and that is enough.”
Others began to chant “He’s back! He’s back! He’s back!”, as they did on April 13, 2002, when a popular uprising returned Chavez to the palace less than 48 hours after he was overthrown in a military coup
Unlike other rallies, where Chavez’s words “are not listened to but rather celebrated” as if one was at a party, today the crowd was silent. “The people listen intently, they don’t want to miss a word,” Isturiz said.
“Chavez’s voice breaks a couple of times … the second time, the bloke in front of me breaks down, drops his head and confesses in a murmur: ‘I have never seen Chavez like this.’
“He is hurting from a pain that is not foreign, but rather fraternal. We are hurting for Chavez, the kind of hurt one feels when the love is real.
“The same people who were desperate to see him, which had clamoured for his words, for his presence, now scream, demand, order: Rest! Rest! Rest! Further back we can hear: Have a break, have a break!”
“He has only been going for half an hour, but it is enough. Chavez resists, but obeys … He obeyed in a disciplined manner the popular will.”
It was a demonstration of the dynamic relationship between Chavez and the masses that has been the motor force driving Venezuela’s process of change.
This is a process that many on the left have criticised as “top-down”. But the forces of imperialism have noted this dynamic relationship is vital to break if it is to halt the revolution.
This is what lies behinds media attempts to demonise Chavez. A recent example was the effort to distort comments made by internationally renowned left-wing US academic Noam Chomsky.
The corporate media sought to turn a letter from Chomsky, that appealed to Chavez to carry out a “humanitarian gesture” to end the detention of a Venezuelan judge, into an outright attack on Chavez.
The Guardian headline claimed Chomsky criticised Chavez’s “assault” on democracy. Chomsky described the headline as a “complete deception”.
Among the statements that Chomsky gave the Guardian that were omitted from its article was the comment that “Venezuela has come under vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally — in the media and even in policy”.
Also omitted was Chomsky’s observation that human rights in neighbouring Colombia, a US ally, were “incomparably worse” than in Venezuela.
Chomsky also told the Guardian, in comments left out of the article: “There are steps towards a better world in Venezuela … There have been some significant steps – the sharp poverty reduction, probably the greatest in the Americas, the [social programme] missions, and the self-governing communities look like promising initiatives.
“It’s hard to judge how successful they are but if they are successful they would be seeds of a better world.”
Despite this, many, including some on the left, were quick to jump on the story as further “proof” of Chavez’s undemocratic nature.
Chavez’s role in the Venezuelan revolution must be placed within its historic context.
The scale of the popular explosion against neoliberalism in Venezuela during the 1990s was inversely proportional to the strength and organisation of a mass movement for change.
There was huge anger, but organised forces based on and capable of leading the angry masses were very weak.
It was in this context that Chavez emerged as a figure capable of expressing and leading the wide-spread opposition to the status quo.
Since then, Chavez’s ability to read the political situation and expose the obstacles faced by the revolutionary process (including those due to internal weaknesses such as corruption and bureaucratism) has been critical to the survival and advance of the Bolivarian revolution.
At each step, Chavez has launched initiatives such as the social missions, to encourage the self-organisation of the people to tackle their most pressing needs.
In doing so, the Venezuelan people have increasingly taken the destiny of their country into their own hands.
Chavez’s absence showed that his government could continue to function without much problem. Nonetheless it is true that his role as the key figure trusted by the poor majority is, for now, irreplaceable.
The future of the process will depend on increasing the self-organisation of the masses and the building of a revolutionary party that can develop a collective leadership that can supplant Chavez’s singular role.
Both these objectives face important enemies in the form of imperialism and its local allies who want to destroy the powerful symbol of defiance that Venezuela represents.
There are also those within the revolutionary movement who would prefer to maintain the status quo, and the power and privileges they have accrued, rather than deepen the process.
But for now, the Venezuelan people have demanded the creation of a new mission – Mission Rest – so that together with their president, fully recovered, they can continue to determine their own destiny.