F ar from the presidential palace where a convalescent Hugo Chavez huddles with doctors, hometown friends in the steamy village of his birth are praying for his speedy recovery from cancer.
Though Chavez, who turns 57 on Thursday, has polarized the South American nation with his radical socialism, support remains strong among former neighbors and friends in Los Llanos plains where he is remembered as a poor, studious boy.
Showing a tattered, sepia-tinged photo of a youthful Chavez in cap and T-shirt sitting among schoolmates before a giant map of Venezuela, Flor Figueredo said she was confident he would be back to his energetic self soon.
"Science is very advanced. Miracles do happen. Here in Venezuela, there's no one else who can be president," said Figueredo, who knew Chavez as a boy in Sabaneta village.
"He used to run around these streets playing with friends," added the 76-year-old retired teacher and still close family friend. "He was a very active boy, a very good student."
Having ruled Venezuela with both charisma and a tough hand for the last 12 years, Chavez's rule was thrown into doubt last month with the revelation he had surgery in Cuba to remove a baseball-sized tumor. [Full coverage: [ID:nCHAVEZ]
Chavez says he is now battling for full recovery—but questions remain over his precise condition, ability to govern during chemotherapy treatment, and energy needed for his expected campaign for re-election in 2012.
The second of six sons of teachers, Chavez was raised in the cattle-ranching Barinas state, spending time at his grandmother's home in Sabaneta, as well as at his parents' even more humble dwelling in the tiny nearby hamlet of Los Rastrojos.
Little has changed there over the last five decades.
Chewing tobacco as he sits outside his small concrete home overlooking the unkempt plot of land where Chavez grew up, 84-year-old Lourdes Urquiola told Reuters he has been praying for the president's swift return.
He proudly describes himself as almost a parent to the "restless" child who went on to become one of the world's most controversial and recognizable leaders.
"He was a good son, always a companion to his father, going fishing and walking with him," Urquiola said.
Almost everyone spoken to by Reuters in Los Rastrojos and Sabaneta offered the president unflinching support. He remembers the village with great affection.
"How I love that village—every corner, the friends of my infancy, the deep memories. My heartfelt love for my dear and beloved Sabaneta!" Chavez said in a speech on Wednesday where he announced new social programs for the Llanos region.
Inspired by tales of Venezuela's revolutionary fighters—many of whom came from Los Llanos—during his boyhood, Chavez was also fired up by the story of his great-grandfather, a fighter for social justice in rural areas in the post-colonial period.
At school in Barinas, a communist teacher also had a strong influence on Chavez's early thinking.
But in a reflection of Venezuelans' sharply divided views on Chavez, there were more mixed opinions an hour's drive away through maize and sugarcane fields in the state capital Barinas.
Passing time on a bench in a city square below a bust of 19th century revolutionary Ezequiel Zamora—a childhood hero of Chavez—unemployed electrician Javier Moreno accuses the president's family of forgetting their roots.
"If Chavez is a revolutionary and wants equality, his family would live like us in the poor neighborhoods, without a car and breaking their backs every day to eat," the 45-year-old said.
Moreno has been out of work for four years and blames Chavez's socialist administration of doing little to help.
"The revolution has its good and bad points," he says. "It serves some and not others. Today, if you want to find work but you're not a government supporter, you're screwed."
Chavez spent a year at school in Barinas, before moving to Caracas at aged 16 to attend the military academy. He had once aspired to be a painter or professional baseball player, but was eventually promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
While in the army, he fell in with a group of left-wing officers who plotted to seize power, eventually being thrown in jail after he led a coup attempt in 1992. Six years later, Venezuela's voters swept him to power via the ballot box.
Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez's relatives have become increasingly involved in politics, with his older brother and ideological mentor Adan currently governor of Barinas. Adan took over the position from their father.
Sitting outside the Liceo O'Leary, the Barinas school where she was a teacher and often saw the youthful Chavez in the halls between classes, 70-year-old nurse Ana Marquez de Mejias said the country's leader was an intellectual even then.
She is certain he will be back to full health soon.
"God has given his blessing to the president of Venezuela," she said, waving her arms in excitement.
Editing by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne and Philip Barbara.