(Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking re-election in an October 7 vote which, if he wins, would potentially extend his socialist rule to 20 years.
Here are some key facts about Chavez:
Born to a poor family in the Venezuelan plains, or "llanos," on July 28, 1954, Chavez once aspired to be a painter and then a professional baseball player. He often explains politics using baseball metaphors and the folksy language of the llanos he learned during his childhood.
A former lieutenant colonel, Chavez spent much of his later military career conspiring with other leftist officers to overthrow the traditional political order. He led a 1992 coup that failed but made his reputation and propelled him toward the presidency as a populist leader.
Chavez won a 1998 presidential election and took office early the following year. Opposition politicians and dissident troops led a coup against him in 2002, but supporters and loyal soldiers swept him back to power in less than two days. Chavez accuses the U.S. government of backing the putsch.
Chavez has enjoyed wide backing among Venezuela's poor majority with massive social spending to expand health and education programs, financed by income from oil exports. He has also cultivated support by confronting the United States, which he denounces as a decadent empire.
Chavez has at various points threatened to shut off oil supplies to the United States - including when he accused then-U.S. President George W. Bush of backing the short-lived 2002 coup attempt - but has always backed off. The United States remains Venezuela's major export market.
Inspired by his friend and mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez has taken Venezuela down an increasingly radical path, nationalizing large swaths of the economy and running the government with a personalized - many say autocratic - style. Opponents say he has become an old-style Latin American "caudillo," or dictator, repressing critics, squandering the nation's oil wealth and ruining its economy.
Chavez has a deliberately populist style and is famous for his strong language and long-winded speeches that often drag on late into the night. He recently broke his own record to give a speech for 9 1/2 hours.
Chavez announced in mid-2011 that he was being treated for cancer. He had three operations in Cuba, where two malignant tumors were removed, but declared himself completely cured in July just before the campaign's final stage. Doctors say it is impossible to rule out another recurrence."
"Chavez wins third re-election in tightest race yet
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez won re-election and a new endorsement of his socialist project Sunday, surviving his closest race yet after a bitter campaign in which the opposition accused him of unfairly using Venezuela's oil wealth and his near total control of state institutions to his advantage.
A long wait for the results produced high tensions, including a Twitter hashtag called BitingNails that became the most popular in the country. Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chavez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
With 90 percent of votes counted, Chavez had more than 54 percent of the vote to 45 percent for challenger Henrique Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old former state governor who unified and energized the opposition while barnstorming across the oil-exporting nation.
But Capriles' promises to seriously address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption proved inadequate against Chavez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and a legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programs.
Chavez rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace, holding up a sword that once belonged to 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"The revolution has triumphed!" Chavez told the crowd, saying his supporters "voted for socialism."
The crowd responded chanting "Chavez won't go!"
Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy and continue populist programs. He pledged before the vote to make a stronger push for socialism in the next term. He's also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals.
A Capriles victory would have brought a radical foreign policy shift including a halt to preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment.
It was Chavez's third re-election in nearly 14 years in office. It was also his smallest victory margin. In 2006, he won by 27 percentage points.
"I can't describe the relief and happiness I feel right now," said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.
He ran through crowds of Chavez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: "Oh, no! Chavez won't go!"
"The revolution will continue, thanks to God and the people of this great country," said Gonzalez.
Voter turnout was an impressive 81 percent, compared to 75 percent in 2006. Chavez paid close attention to his military-like get-out-the-vote organization at the grass roots, stressing its importance at campaign rallies. The opposition said he unfairly plowed millions in state funds into the effort.
Chavez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs.
"I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
But Shifter also didn't deny the affinity and gratefulness Venezuela's poor feel for Chavez. "Despite his illness, I still think he retains a large emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him."
Chavez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness.
Capriles told supporters not to feel defeated.
"We have planted many seeds across Venezuela and I know that these seeds are going to produce many trees," he told a hall of supporters.
Despite winning a February primary that unified the opposition, Capriles proved no match for Chavez's electoral prowess.
David Valencia, a 20-year-old Capriles supporter, said he was disappointed but that he hadn't lost hope despite the loss.
"There is still a sense in our hearts of wanting a better country," he said.
One pro-Chavez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chavez deserved to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government programs. The country has the world's largest proven oil reserves.
"There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country," Silva said after voting for Chavez at a school in the Caracas slum of Petare.
At many polling places, voters began lining up hours before polls opened at dawn, some snaking for blocks in the baking Caribbean sun. Some shaded themselves with umbrellas. Vendors grilled meat and some people drank beer.
Chavez's critics say the president has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," ''Yankees" and "neo-Nazis," and it's likely hard for many of his opponents to stomach another six years of the loquacious and conflictive leader.
Some said before the vote that they'd consider leaving the country if Chavez won.
Gino Caso, an auto mechanic, said Chavez is power-hungry and out of touch with problems such as crime. He said his son had been robbed, as had neighboring shops.
"I don't know what planet he lives on," Caso said, gesturing with hands blackened with grease. "He wants to be like Fidel Castro — end up with everything, take control of the country."
"Venezuela's Chavez heads to Cuba for medical treatment
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will travel to Cuba on Tuesday for medical treatment, following a nearly two-week absence from the public eye, months after undergoing cancer surgery on the Communist-run island.
Chavez, 58, staged what appeared to be a remarkable comeback from an undisclosed type of cancer diagnosed in June 2011. In October, he won re-election following a campaign that was much more subdued than his previous bids.
In a letter to Congress, Chavez said he would receive a form of therapy known as hyperbaric oxygenation, which is often used for the prevention and treatment of bone decay caused by radiation therapy, according to the American Cancer Society.
Chavez has not appeared in public in 12 days. The absence is unusual for a leader who routinely chats for hours on live broadcasts and suggests his health has weakened since the campaign.
"Six months after I completed the last radiation therapy treatment, it has been recommended that I begin a special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygenation," Chavez wrote in the letter, which was read by congressional leader Diosdado Cabello.
"Together with physical therapy, (this) will consolidate the process of strengthening my health."
The letter did not mention cancer.
Hyperbaric oxygenation therapy, also known as HBOT, involves breathing pure oxygen while in a pressurized chamber.
Chavez's centralization of power and enormous control over the country's oil revenue have made him the center of the OPEC nation that provides about 10 percent of U.S. crude imports.
If his health took a turn for the worse, his unwieldy coalition of military leaders and leftist social activists could fall apart. Investors hoping for a more market-friendly government tend to buy Venezuela's highly traded bonds on reports his health is worsening.
The country's benchmark Global 27 bond extended gains in the wake of the announcement.
Chavez's refusal to disclose his actual condition has made his health the subject of constant speculation, particularly among opposition sympathizers who quietly hope he will take a turn for the worse. He defeated opposition challenger Henrique Capriles by 10 percentage points last month.
In late 2011, Chavez declared himself completely cured of cancer, but, within months, had to return to Cuba to remove another tumor.
Doctors say a couple of years must pass without a recurrence before a patient is said to be cured.
Many Venezuelan doctors suspect Chavez used steroids and other treatments to look and feel fitter during the election campaign. That can cause other health problems.
Chavez spent several months traveling back and forth to Cuba to receive treatment. The typically hermetic atmosphere there, and his friendship with former leader Fidel Castro, helped prevent details of his condition from leaking to the press.
Venezuela's constitution says that if an incumbent leaves office in the first four years of a six-year term, a new election must be held."
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) â€” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is heading back to Cuba on Sunday for more surgery for cancer, announcing on television that the illness has returned after two previous operations, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Chavez acknowledged the seriousness of his situation in an address Saturday night, saying for the first time that if he suffers complications Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place as Venezuela's leader and continue his socialist movement.
"There are risks. Who can deny it?" Chavez said, seated at the presidential palace beside Maduro and other aides.
"In any circumstance, we should guarantee the advance of the Bolivarian Revolution," Chavez said.
Outside medical experts said that based on Chavez's account of his condition, he is facing a very difficult fight against an aggressive type of cancer.
The president, who just returned from Cuba early Friday, said tests had found a return of "some malignant cells" in the same area where tumors were previously removed.
Chavez, who has yet to be sworn in for his new term after winning re-election on Oct. 7, said he would return to Havana on Sunday and would undergo the operation in the coming days.
Chavez's quick trip home appeared aimed at sending a clear directive to his inner circle that Maduro is his chosen successor. He called for his allies to pull together, saying: "Unity, unity, unity."
Chavez said his doctors had recommended he have the surgery right away, but that he had told them he wanted to return to Venezuela first.
"I want to go there. I need to go to Venezuela," Chavez recalled telling his doctors. "And what I came for was this," he said, seated below a portrait of independence hero Simon Bolivar, the inspiration of his Bolivarian Revolution movement.
Chavez named Maduro, his longtime foreign minister, as his choice for vice president three days after winning re-election. Maduro, a burly former bus driver, has shown unflagging loyalty and become a leading spokesman for Venezuela's socialist leader in recent years.
The vice president's expression was solemn as Chavez said that Maduro should become president if any complication were to prevent him from finishing his current term, which concludes in early January. Chavez said that if new elections are held, his movement's candidate should be Maduro.
"In that scenario, which under the constitution would require presidential elections to be held again, you all elect Nicolas Maduro as president," Chavez said. "I ask that of you from my heart."
Chavez held a small blue copy of the constitution in his hands and waved it. The Venezuelan constitution says that if a president-elect dies before taking office, a new election should be held within 30 days and that in the meantime the president of the National Assembly is to be in charge of the government.
While he spoke, Chavez was flanked by both Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10, and he called his relapse a "new battle."
This will be his third operation to remove cancerous tissue in about a year and a half.
The 58-year-old president first underwent surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer in Cuba in June 2011, after an operation for a pelvic abscess earlier in the month found the cancer. He had another cancer surgery last February after a tumor appeared in the same area. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Chavez said tests immediately after his re-election win had shown no sign of cancer. But he said he had swelling and pain, which he thought was due to "the effort of the campaign and the radiation therapy treatment."
"It's a very sensitive area, so we started to pay a lot of attention to that," he said, adding that he had reduced his public appearances.
Chavez made his most recent trip to Cuba on the night of Nov. 27, saying he would receive hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Such treatment is regularly used to help heal tissues damaged by radiation treatment.
Chavez said that while he was in Cuba tests detected the recurrence of cancer.
He arrived back in Caracas on Friday after 10 days of medical treatment, but until Saturday night had not referred to his health. His unexplained decision to skip a summit of regional leaders in Brazil on Friday had raised suspicions among many Venezuelans that his health had taken a turn for the worse.
"I hope to give you all good news in the coming days," said Chavez, who held up a crucifix and kissed it. "With the grace of God, we'll come out victorious."
Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the League Against Cancer in neighboring Colombia, told The Associated Press that he expects the operation will likely be followed by more chemotherapy.
"It's behaving like a sarcoma, and sarcoma doesn't forgive," Castro said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if the cancer had also spread to the lungs or other areas.
"We knew this was going to happen," he said. "This isn't good."
Throughout his treatment, Chavez has kept secret various details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer. He has said he travels to Cuba for treatment because his cancer was diagnosed by doctors there.
Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, said in a phone interview that he wasn't surprised by the news.
"I think this is recurrent cancer that at this point is almost certainly not going to go away," Pishvaian said. "It's unlikely that what he's going through now is curable."
He speculated that given what Chavez has said about his cancer, it is most likely a soft-tissue sarcoma. He said those in the pelvis area have a likelihood of recurring of 50 percent to 70 percent, even with the best treatment."
"Venezuela's Chavez back from Cuba medical treatment
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez made a theatrical return from Cuba on Friday after medical treatment, walking and joking in a first public appearance for three weeks that quashed rumors he may have been at death's door.
"I'm happy and enthused to be back again," Chavez said after flying in overnight to the delight of supporters.
"So, where's the party?" Chavez joked, in festive mood as he chatted with ministers after walking unaided down the steps from his plane at the international airport outside Caracas.
The 58-year-old socialist leader has had three cancer operations in Cuba since mid-2011 and returned to Havana ten days ago to receive "hyperbaric oxygenation" - a treatment normally used to alleviate bone decay from radiation therapy.
But speculation was rife he may have suffered a recurrence of the disease.
One local journalist said he was confined to a wheelchair.
Earlier this year, Chavez declared himself "completely cured" and went on to comfortably win re-election in October.
Amid a barrage of rumors, officials had maintained his latest trip to Cuba was just a scheduled follow-up to the radiation therapy he underwent in the first half of 2012.
Supporters celebrated the return of the man who has dominated the South American OPEC nation since he first won election in 1998. He wore a multi-colored track suit and arrived with relatives and aides including vice president Nicolas Maduro.
"YEEESSSS!!!!," tweeted Eva Golinger, an American-Venezuelan lawyer close to the Chavez government.
"Chavez is back and has shown up all the rumor-mongers, necrophiliacs, gossips and ill-thinkers. Welcome commander."
On Friday, Cuba's Communist Party newspaper showed President Raul Castro bidding farewell to Chavez at Havana airport.
Chavez's return gives him a week to campaign for Venezuela's December 16 state elections, where the ruling Socialist Party is hoping to use the momentum of the presidential victory to win back some opposition-held governorships.
The opposition, however, is hoping that discontent with grassroots issues like crime, power-cuts and cronyism will enable it to at least hold the seven states it controls out of Venezuela's 23.
Speculation is unlikely to end over Chavez's health, given the scant details given by the government.
Doctors say hyperbaric oxygenation is a treatment normally given in different sessions over several months, meaning he could return again to Cuba soon.
They also say nobody can declare themselves completely cured of cancer until a couple of years have passed without a recurrence.
The president had dearly wanted to attend the Mercosur trade bloc summit in Brazil on Friday, to celebrate Venezuela's entry, so his absence from that maintained a question mark over just how well he is.
Opponents criticize Chavez for secrecy over his health and preferring Cuban doctors to Venezuela.
He has chosen to be treated in Havana due to his friendship with Cuba's past and present leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, plus the discretion he is guaranteed thanks to the Communist government's strict controls on information."
"Chavez's cancer surgery successful, Venezuela VP says
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's cancer operation in Cuba on Tuesday was a success, his vice president said, adding that the complex surgery had lasted more than six hours and he would be recuperating for several days.
The 58-year-old socialist leader's third bout with cancer in the past 18 months has thrown his presidency into jeopardy and upended politics in the South American OPEC nation.
"Once again, our comandante has shown his strength," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a broadcast on state television as members of the government alongside him applauded.
"We want to thank the Venezuelan people for all the love they dedicated so this operation was completed correctly and successfully," said Maduro, whom Chavez has named as his successor if he is unable to stay in power.
Maduro said the post-operative phase would last several days. "We can say the president has beaten the first obstacle and now, with his medical team, he will go on recuperating."
Chavez's surgery in Cuba, a close ally, was his fourth since mid-2011. Doctors found malignant cells again in his pelvic area soon after he comfortably won re-election in October.
Chavez had twice declared himself cured, only for the cancer to return. He has said he still hopes to recover from this operation in time for the January 10 start of a new six-year term in office.
He named Maduro on Saturday as a potential heir to lead his self-styled revolution in a nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.
The move irked some in Venezuela's opposition, who say voters - not Chavez - would decide who follows him if he were forced to step down and an election was held within 30 days, as required under the constitution.
'RIGHT TO KNOW'
Should an election be held, opposition flag-bearer Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential ballot but scored a record 6.5 million votes for the opposition, could have a second crack at power.
In a newspaper interview on Tuesday, Capriles declined to speculate on a possible new presidential bid and repeated his best wishes to Chavez for a quick recovery. But he criticized the secrecy surrounding the president's treatment.
"Venezuelans have the right to know," he said.
Maduro said Chavez was surrounded by family and top government officials in Havana, where he is a guest of his friend and political ally, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The vice president criticized attempts to manipulate news of the president's health for political gain, saying: "Stop spreading hatred and poison every day. Respect the president and respect the sadness of the people, who this man has freed."
The stakes are high for Cuba and other socialist-run nations across Latin America and the Caribbean that depend on the Chavez government for subsidized oil and other economic aid.
Messages of support have poured in from allies.
"He changed the history of Venezuela and much of Latin America," said Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, a member of the Chavez-led bloc of leftist nations in the region.
"He's in good spirits. You know what Hugo's like, always ready for tough battles with optimism and faith," Correa said of Chavez before the operation. "I'm not going to lie, we are very worried."
U.S. actor Sean Penn, one of Chavez's most prominent international supporters, joined a vigil in Bolivia. "He's one of the most impressive forces on the planet and we need to show him our love," Penn was quoted as saying by local media.
Cancer experts warned that the recurrence of Chavez's disease was bad news.
"The chances for long-term recovery are highest the first time around, when you attack a cancer with surgery and chemotherapy. Whenever a cancer recurs, your chances for a long-term positive outcome decrease," said Dr. Axel Grothey, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Grothey has not been involved in the president's treatment, but said he had seen many patients in a similar situation.
Maduro, 50, a former bus driver and union activist, lacks his boss' charisma and political flair but would represent policy continuity should he take over. He has already taken control of day-to-day government business.
Chavez's health woes had sparked a rally in Venezuela bonds, given many investors' preference for a more business-friendly government in Caracas. Gains were trimmed slightly on Tuesday.
Western investors have increasingly shunned Venezuela under Chavez - especially given his nationalizations of large swaths of the economy - giving companies from China, Russia, Iran, Belarus and other allies a chance to grab footholds.
In London, emerging market investor Mark Mobius said any change to a more market-friendly government in Venezuela would encourage him to invest there once more.
In a research report, Nomura said the market should temper its enthusiasm in the medium term, saying the impact of Chavez's blessing of Maduro should not be underestimated if a new election were held.
"Second, the situation inside the opposition is not a bed of roses, as there are ongoing contradictions and a certain lack of morale," it said, adding that Capriles was beaten heavily on October 7.
The health saga has once again eclipsed major national issues such as state elections on Sunday, a widely expected devaluation of the bolivar currency and a proposed amnesty for Chavez's jailed and exiled political foes.
Venezuelans were expecting a currency devaluation around the New Year, although Chavez's illness has put that in doubt."
"Venezuela's Chavez in delicate state after surgery
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in delicate condition after his latest surgery for cancer, the government said on Wednesday in a sombre assessment that may indicate an end to his 14-year leadership of the South American OPEC nation.
Looking grave-faced in an address to the nation the day after Chavez's six-hour operation in Cuba, Vice President Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuelans to unite in prayer for the 58-year-old president and keep faith he would return soon.
"Yesterday's operation was complex, difficult and delicate, so the post-operation process will also be a complex and tough process," Maduro said, flanked by ministers who flew in to Caracas overnight after accompanying Chavez in Cuba.
Maduro spoke of "difficult" times ahead.
Chavez's downturn opens gaping uncertainty about the future of his self-styled socialist revolution in a nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.
A frequent critic of the United States, Chavez has spearheaded a resurgence of the left in Latin America, galvanized a global "anti-imperialist" alliance from Iran to Belarus and led a decade-long push by developing nations for greater control over natural resources.
At home, he has won cult-like status among the poor with his charisma and oil-financed largesse from health clinics to free homes. But he has alienated business with frequent nationalizations and angered many Venezuelans by putting ideological crusades over basic services.
Maduro, whom Chavez has named as a preferred successor should he be incapacitated, offered no medical details but urged Venezuelans to stay hopeful.
Supporters have been holding prayer vigils, while opponents also sent Chavez best wishes for a successful recovery.
"We continue praying for this post-operation phase, where he must continue overcoming difficulties. May God give him strength," said priest Walter Nabea.
In a plaza near the centre of Caracas, neighbours came to write well wishes for Chavez on a white cloth. But government officials appeared to be cautiously preparing the president's supporters for the worst.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a statement that Venezuelans should view Chavez's situation like that of an ill relative and have faith that he will return.
"If he doesn't, our people should be ready to understand him. It would be irresponsible to hide the delicate nature of the moment we are currently living," he wrote.
State TV showed hours of footage of government officials pledging loyalty to Chavez, homages to the president and rank-and-file supporters gushing with admiration.
"He is a second Jesus Christ," one woman beamed.
The stakes also are enormous for allies around Latin America and the Caribbean who rely on generous oil subsidies and other aid from Chavez. President Raul Castro's communist government in Cuba is particularly vulnerable because of its dependence on more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela.
Wall Street investors also are watching closely in the hopes that Chavez's intransigent socialism will give way to a more market-friendly administration.
Venezuela's global bonds, which usually rise on bad news about Chavez's health, saw a muted reaction on Wednesday.
The operation was Chavez's fourth in Havana since mid-2011 for a recurring cancer in the pelvic region.
Opposition leaders have criticized the government for lack of transparency, pointing out that other Latin American leaders provided detailed reports of both diagnoses and treatments.
The president is due to start a new, six-year term on January 10 after his October re-election.
REGIONAL ELECTIONS LOOM
The Chavez health saga has eclipsed the build-up to regional elections on Sunday that will be an important test of political forces in Venezuela at such a pivotal moment.
Of most interest in the 23 state elections is opposition leader Henrique Capriles' bid to retain the Miranda governorship against a challenge from former Vice President Elias Jaua.
Polls have been mixed with one showing Capriles way ahead and another giving Jaua a 5 percentage point lead.
Capriles must win if he is to retain credibility and be the opposition's presidential candidate-in-waiting should Chavez's cancer force a new election. Even though it may be premature, many Venezuelans already are asking themselves what a Capriles versus Maduro presidential election would be like.
Capriles, who favours a Brazilian-style government promoting open markets with firm welfare safeguards, won 44 percent in the election, a record 6.5 million votes for the opposition.
Although past polls have shown Capriles more popular than all of Chavez's allies, that would not necessarily be the case against a Maduro candidacy imbued with Chavez's personal blessing and with the power of the Socialist Party behind him.
"Capriles is probably the only potential opposition candidate with sufficient national presence, name recognition and organization to defeat a sympathy-buoyed Nicolas Maduro in a short campaign," Credit Suisse said in a research note."
"Aides: Chavez in tough fight, may miss swearing-in
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Somber confidants of President Hugo Chavez say he is going through a difficult recovery after cancer surgery in Cuba, and one close ally is warning Venezuelans that their leader may not make it back for his swearing-in next month.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Wednesday night that Chavez was in "stable condition" and was with close relatives in Havana. Reading a statement, he said the government invites people to "accompany President Chavez in this new test with their prayers."
Villegas expressed hope about the president returning home for his Jan. 10 swearing-in for a new six-year term, but said in a written message on a government website that if Chavez doesn't make it, "our people should be prepared to understand it."
Villegas said it would be irresponsible to hide news about the "delicateness of the current moment and the days to come." He asked Venezuelans to see Chavez's condition as "when we have a sick father, in a delicate situation after four surgeries in a year and a half."
Moving to prepare the public for the possibility of more bad news, Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim when he acknowledged that Chavez faced a "complex and hard" process after his latest surgery.
At the same time, officials sought to show a united front amid the growing worries about Chavez's health and Venezuela's future. Key leaders of Chavez's party and military officers appeared together on television as Maduro gave updates on Chavez's condition.
"We're more united than ever," said Maduro, who was flanked by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, both key members of Chavez's inner circle. "We're united in loyalty to Chavez."
Analysts say Maduro could eventually face challenges in trying to hold together the president's diverse "Chavismo" movement, which includes groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions.
Tapped by the 58-year-old president over the weekend as his chosen political heir, Maduro is considered to be a member of radical left wing of Chavez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government.
Cabello, a former military officer who also wields power within Chavez's movement, shared the spotlight with Maduro by speaking at a Mass for Chavez's health at a military base.
Just returned from being with Chavez for the operation, Cabello called the president "invincible" but said "that man who is in Havana ... is fighting a battle for his life."
After Chavez's six-hour operation Tuesday, Venezuelan television broadcast religious services where people prayed for Chavez, interspersed with campaign rallies for upcoming gubernatorial elections.
On the streets of Caracas, people on both sides of the country's deep political divide voiced concerns about Chavez's condition and what might happen if he died.
At campaign rallies ahead of Sunday's gubernatorial elections, Chavez's candidates urged Venezuelans to vote for pro-government candidates while they also called for the president to get well.
"Onward, Commander!" gubernatorial candidate Elias Jaua shouted to a crowd of supporters at a rally Wednesday. Many observers said it was likely Chavez's candidates could get a boost from their supporters' outpouring of sympathy for Chavez.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is running against Jaua, complained Wednesday that Chavez's allies are taking advantage of the president's health problems to try to rally support. He took issue with Jaua's statement to supporters that "we have to vote so that the president recovers."
Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, his voice hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the pre-dawn hours with Cabello and Ramirez. The pair returned to Venezuela about 3 a.m. after accompanying Chavez to Cuba for his surgery.
"It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation," Maduro said. "The post-operative process is also going to be a complex and hard process."
Without giving details, Maduro reiterated Chavez's recent remarks that the surgery presented risks and that people should be prepared for any "difficult scenarios."
The constitution says presidents should be sworn in before the National Assembly, and if that's not possible then before the Supreme Court.
Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor said a president cannot delegate the swearing-in to anyone else and cannot take the oath of office outside Venezuela. A president could still be sworn in even if temporarily incapacitated, but would need to be conscious and in Venezuela, Duque told The Associated Press.
If a president-elect is declared incapacitated by lawmakers and is unable to be sworn in, the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote must be held within 30 days, Duque said.
Chavez said Saturday that if an election had to be held, Maduro should be elected president.
The dramatic events of this week, with Chavez suddenly taking a turn for the worse, had some Venezuelans wondering whether they were being told the truth because just a few months ago the president was running for his fourth presidential term and had said he was free of cancer.
Lawyer Maria Alicia Altuve, who was out in bustling crowds in a shopping district of downtown Caracas, said it seemed odd how Maduro wept at a political rally while talking about Chavez.
"He cries on television to set up a drama, so that people go vote for poor Chavez," Altuve said. "So we don't know if this illness is for that, or if it's that this man is truly sick."
Some Chavez supporters said they found it hard to think about losing the president and worried about the future. His admirers held prayer vigils in Caracas and other cities this week, holding pictures and singing hymns.
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011. He has also undergone months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Throughout his treatments, Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, including the exact location and type of the tumors.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa wished his close ally the best, while also acknowledging the possibility that cancer might end his presidency. "Chavez is very important for Latin America, but if he can't continue at the head of Venezuela, the processes of change have to continue," Correa said at a news conference in Quito."
"Venezuela's Chavez suffers complication from surgery
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suffered bleeding as a result of a six-hour operation in Cuba meant to treat a third bout of cancer, the government said on Thursday.
The 58-year-old socialist leader needed "corrective measures" that stopped the bleeding, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a statement.
"This process of recovery will take time because of the complexity of the operation," Villegas said in a broadcast on national television. "The patient is in a progressive and favorable recovery of normal vital signs."
He did not provide further details.
The ashen faces of cabinet ministers and somber tone of the terse official statements since the operation appear to suggest top government officials are preparing for the worst.
Chavez won re-election by a big margin in October and is due to start a new six-year term on January 10. According to the constitution, if he is unable to do so, a new election must be held within 30 days.
The president has refused to divulge the details of the cancer diagnosed in mid-2011 and has twice declared he was completely cured - only to later undergo more surgery."
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) â€” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is confronting "new complications" due to a respiratory infection nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery, his vice president said in Cuba as he visited the ailing leader for the first time since his operation.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression in a televised address from Havana on Sunday. He described Chavez's condition as delicate.
"Several minutes ago we were with President Chavez. We greeted each other and he himself referred to these complications," Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.
The vice president's comments suggest an increasingly difficult fight for Chavez. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term.
"The president gave us precise instructions so that, after finishing the visit, we would tell the (Venezuelan) people about his current health condition," Maduro said. "President Chavez's state of health continues to be delicate, with complications that are being attended to, in a process not without risks."
Maduro was seated alongside Chavez's eldest daughter, Rosa, and son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, as well as Attorney General Cilia Flores. He held up a copy of a newspaper confirming that his message was recorded on Sunday.
"Thanks to his physical and spiritual strength, Comandante Chavez is facing this difficult situation," Maduro said.
Maduro said he had met various times with Chavez's medical team and relatives. He said he would remain in Havana "for the coming hours" but didn't specify how long.
Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for a sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Chavez since the surgery in Cuba, where the president's mentor Fidel Castro has reportedly made regular visits to check on him.
Before flying to Cuba, Maduro said that Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.
"The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge only seems understandable if Chavez's health is precarious," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
Smilde said that Maduro probably made the trip "to be able to talk to Chavez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chavez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10."
"Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chavez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious," Smilde said.
Before his operation, Chavez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.
Chavez said at the time that his cancer had come back despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has been fighting an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June 2011.
Medical experts say that it's common for patients who have undergone major surgeries to suffer respiratory infections and that how a patient fares can vary widely from a quick recovery in a couple of days to a fight for life on a respirator.
Maduro's latest update differed markedly from last Monday, when he had said he received a phone call from the president and that Chavez was up and walking.
The vice president spoke on Sunday below a picture of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, the inspiration of Chavez's leftist Bolivarian Revolution movement.
Maduro said that Chavez had sent year-end greetings to his homeland and a "warm hug to the boys and girls of Venezuela."
The vice president expressed faith that Chavez's "immense will to live and the care of the best medical specialists will help our president successfully fight this new battle." He concluded his message saying: "Long live Chavez."
Chavez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October, three months after he had announced that his latest tests showed he was cancer-free.
Opposition politicians have criticized a lack of detailed information about Chavez's condition, and last week repeated their demands for a full medical report.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas defended the government's handling of the situation, saying during a televised panel discussion on Sunday night that Chavez "has told the truth in his worst moments" throughout his presidency.
He also referred to a new surge of rumors about Chavez's condition and called for respect for the president and his family.
Villegas said a government-organized New Year's Eve concert in a downtown Caracas plaza had been canceled, and he urged Venezuelans to pray for Chavez.
Chavez's daughter Maria, who has been with the president since his surgery, said in a message on her Twitter account: "Thank you people of Venezuela. Thank you people of the world. You and your love have always been our greatest strength! God is with us! We love you!"
Allies of the president also responded on Twitter, repeating the phrase: "Chavez lives and will triumph."
"Venezuela's opposition demands "whole truth" about Chavez health
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition on Wednesday demanded the government tell "the whole truth" about the health of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez, who has not been heard from in three weeks after undergoing a grueling operation in Cuba.
Officials have acknowledged the usually garrulous former soldier's health is delicate after his fourth cancer surgery in 18 months, but have offered scant details on his condition.
He has not spoken in public in more than three weeks.
Ramon Aveledo, head of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, slammed the government for not keeping its word about keeping Venezuelans informed.
"The official version (of Chavez's health) hides more information than it gives," Aveledo said at a press conference.
"The vice president himself has promised to tell the truth, whatever it is. Fine, he should tell it. He should tell the whole truth," said Aveledo.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez last month designated as his heir apparent, on Tuesday said in an interview from Havana that Chavez had recognized the complexity of his post-operative condition.
Maduro said he was returning to Venezuela after several days visiting with Chavez and his relatives, which may quell rumors his trip to Cuba signaled the president was in his final days.
Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a shock for Venezuela, where his oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor majority but a nemesis to critics who call him a dictator.
He is still set to be sworn in on January 10, as laid out in the constitution. If he dies or steps aside, new elections would be held within 30 days, with Maduro running as the Socialist Party candidate.
Chavez suffered unexpected bleeding and a respiratory infection after a six-hour operation on December 11. Terse official statements have said nothing about when he might be expected back or whether his life is in danger.
The government has provided none of the signature videos or pictures released after Chavez was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 and his relapse in 2012. And allies have refused to discuss the possibility that he could hand over power or resign.
Chavez last year staged what appeared to be remarkable comeback from the disease to win reelection to a third six-year term in October despite being weakened by radiation therapy. He returned to Cuba for new treatment within weeks of his win.
Officials from the ruling Socialist Party are now suggesting his inauguration could be postponed indefinitely to accommodate his health.
Aveledo insisted the government should stick to the January 10 timeline called for in the constitution.
"Trying to make the country believe that the President is governing is absurd to the point of being irresponsible," he said. "January 10 marks the end of one presidential term and the start of another. As such, there is no continuation of the current government."
Aveledo said if Chavez cannot make it back in time, he should hand power over to the president of Congress - who would temporarily run the country while elections are called.
Congress, controlled by Chavez allies, on Saturday elects a new president. Current Congress chief Diosdado Cabello, a close Chavez ally who could be reelected to head the legislature, has at times been considered a rival of Maduro. The two have taken great pains in recent weeks to publicly deny this.
While the constitution cites January 10 as the start of the new term, it does not establish what happens if the president does not take office on that date.
Chavez's condition is being watched closely by Latin American countries that have benefited from his generous assistance, as well as Wall Street investors who are drawn to Venezuela's lucrative and heavily traded bonds."
For years, Cubans have speculated -- evidently incorrectly -- that Fidel Castro's death has been covered up by his brother Raul. With state media so tightly controlled, there is no way of knowing -- but though the rumors may quiet, they never really stop.
Two spectral leftists may soon haunt the island. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba on December 10 for cancer treatments he claimed he no longer needed, the media lost insight into his condition. Media reports say he chose treatment in Cuba over a state-of-the-art Brazilian hospital so he could better control the flow of information about his condition.
Still, some details have slipped out. On January 3, outlets reported that senior Venezuelan officials had flown to Cuba to be at the ailing leader's bedside. On Tuesday night, the AP formally reported that Chavez would not attend his inauguration in Venezuela. The government is arguing that this development has no bearing on his status as president.
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Death, one imagines, would. But will Chavez's lieutenants report the news of his passing when it happens? Might they keep Chavez on his ventilator -- in the barest state of life -- for as long as suits them to say, technically truthfully, that he still lives?
With both countries' leaderships close-lipped, Venezuelans themselves have no more information than the rest of us. And there may be an incentive to obscure his status, say some opposition leaders and analysts. Two of Chavez's lieutenants, they claim, are fighting for power. One of them is Chavez's publicly anointed heir, new vice-president Nicolas Maduro; the other is National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello.
The two men have made a public show of unity in recent days, but opposition leaders allege the appearance is deceiving. A January 6 report from the AP quotes opposition member Julio Borges: "'While the president is sick in Havana, they have a power conflict,' Borges said. 'That's why they are engendering this violation of the constitution.'" Maduro, in turn, accused the opposition of plotting a coup.
Even some Chavez allies -- like Heinz Dietrich, a theorist of Chavismo now living in Mexico City -- see the two men in conflict.
Maduro and Cabello come from different wings of the Chavista movement, and have different allegiances. While Maduro is more likely to succeed Chavez, if Cabello wanted a fight he would have strong support in the military.
Yet while news outlets have been indulging in succession speculation, there's little concrete evidence of a real power struggle. With official silence provoking worried reactions, these breathless reports will almost certainly turn out to be overblown. If there is a power struggle, however, odds are the arguments will hinge in part on a few words in the Venezuelan constitution.
The Heir Apparent
On December 9, before he left for treatment in Cuba, Chavez sat down before television cameras with his two top lieutenants, Maduro and Cabello, on either side of him. In an emotional speech, he suggested for the first time that he might not return to lead the South America country.
If it becomes necessary to call an election, Chavez said, looking directly into the camera, "pick Nicolas Maduro as president."
The press has spent several weeks acquainting Americans with Maduro: former bus driver and transportation union leader, and Chavez confidant. His leadership style is broadly considered a little rough. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal remarked that "he has been caught in recent TV interviews glancing down at note cards."
If he does become Venezuela's next president, he will follow on the heels of a boss who could speak extemporaneously for five or six hours at a time on his weekly talk show AlÃ³ Presidente.
Other reporters have noted Maduro's extensive ties to the Cuban government. Practically the only idiosyncratic piece of information that has escaped from behind the leadership's curtain of silence is a fact about Maduro's religious beliefs. Several outlets have reported that he is an adherent of the late Indian mystic Sri Sathya Sai.
Yet the portrait of Maduro that has emerged in the news media is still very sparse, reflecting the Chavista practice of emphasizing Chavez's persona while occulting most information about his lieutenants.
Patrick Duddy, the last U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, was in touch with Maduro from time to time and recalls him as a "formal" presence. Publicly, his comments suggested he "largely shared President Chavez's deep antipathy to the United States."
Observers are looking for some sign that Maduro would soften Venezuela's stance towards the U.S. As the Chavez situation changes, the press have reported contact between Maduro and State Department officials. Both Maduro and a State Department spokesperson were quick to play down the significance of that contact in press conferences.
While some analysts have taken this as a sign of a potential new "softening" in U.S.-Venezuela relations if Maduro comes to power, Duddy suggested that any thaw in bilateral relations was not a unique development, citing other moments where there had been minor thaws.
The former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, whom Chavez expelled in September 2008 after the Bolivian government made similar moves, was able to return to the country nine months later to finish his tour of duty following a brief meeting between Obama and Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in Tobago in 2009. In that meeting, Chavez seemed open to restoring more formal diplomatic relations between the two countries out of national self-interest.
An increased openness on Maduro's part to do business with the Americans might have less to do with his personality than with directives left by Chavez.
Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, characterized Maduro's "personal style" as "fairly open, if one looks at him compared to other Chavistas," though he qualified this statement, noting that Maduro is "committed to the left."
Why So Silent?
Still, as enigmatic as Maduro can be, we know far more about him than Diosdado Cabello. The information void around Cabello, who like Chavez comes from a military background, gives us some sense of why the Venezuelan government as a whole is so secretive: It's part of the Chavez government's martial culture.
Very little has been written about Cabello, who on Saturday was reelected the chairman of the National Assembly. He was educated in Venezuela's officer system, and has known Chavez since their days in the military. He played a key supporting role in Chavez's attempted 1992 coup d' etat.
Shifter characterized Cabello as "less accessible" than Maduro. "My sense is he hasn't traveled quite as much," Shifter said, and doesn't "have as much of a sense of the broader context."
But Shifter did note Cabello's strong base of support in the military, which he characterized as a "black box" about which "not much is known." He sees a "crucial role" for the military in the country's future.
Like Chavismo, the military is made up of several factions. Cabello appears to be the "head figure" of a nationalistic segment of the military, as opposed to other, "institutionalist" factions that have a "sense of professionalism."
"What they say about a lot of these people that Cabello is close to is that they really resent the role of the Cubans" in Venezuela, Shifter said.
Chavez, who admires the Castros ideologically, has cultivated what appears to be a relationship of equals with the island nation, despite supporting it heavily with oil.
(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Shifter characterized parts of the military as "corrupt," and believes the "militaristic nature" of Chavismo has been "underplayed," noting the dominating presence of military officials in executive branch positions and governorships.
Cabello has already been president of Venezuela once -- for a period of several hours in April 2002, when Chavez was held hostage during a coup attempt. The attempt failed, and Chavez returned to office within 48 hours of leaving.
The month after, Chavez reorganized his cabinet, making Cabello, who had been vice-president, his interior minister.
Cabello later served a term as governor of Miranda state, losing the position to opposition leader Henrique Capriles in 2008. Capriles, Chavez's opponent in the last election, is likely to run again in the next one, which may have provided Chavez some incentive to name Maduro the heir.
The opposition alleges that Cabello abused his position as governor of Miranda state -- a position next occupied by Capriles -- making double payments to certain entities and offering lucrative government contracts to relatives. As of September 2012, the opposition had not been made aware of any investigation relating to the 2008 charges, Capriles's ally and interim governor told the newspaper El Universal.
If the allegations were true, they may not be Cabello's only involvement in corruption.
"From what I read," said Shifter, "he may be in a position to protect some of the officials in the military that may have benefited a great deal from the last couple of years in Venezuela from corruption, drug trafficking, and other things."
Both Shifter and Duddy played down the possibility of Cabello's ascendance.
One could argue that far less alarming than the dynamic between Maduro and Cabello in this instance is the fact that the Venezuelan state, as it is currently structured, can produce a leader with strong military support about whom almost nothing is known publicly.
A Chavez Choose-Your-Own-Adventure
Everyone seems to agree that Maduro and Cabello are the two key players in post-Chavez Venezuela, but reports on the legal order of succession become murky.
Whether Maduro or Cabello is next in line, legally, to succeed Chavez actually depends on the legal status of the leader's swearing-in -- an issue that may not be settled for weeks in law, even if events seem to overtake the law.
The latest Venezuelan constitution, which Chavez's own government implemented in 2009, is fairly clear on the two possible paths of succession. If Chavez died or were otherwise ruled "absent" by the National Assembly after his swearing-in (which is supposed to be on January 10), Maduro would assume power.
The National Assembly has two options for declaring an absence in this case. It can declare a permanent absence and require the vice president to oversee an election within 30 days. Or it can declare a temporary absence. In that case, Maduro would step into the office of president for a period of 90 days. His protectorship could be extended for another 90 before an election would have to be called.
On the other hand, if Chavez were declared permanently absent before his swearing-in, Cabello would assume control of the government for the 30 days needed to hold an election. Because Chavez has not yet been sworn in, at this moment, Cabello is technically in line to succeed Chavez.
At far greater issue than the technical order of succession is the swearing-in that activates one order of succession or the other. Yesterday the government acknowledged that Chavez will not return to Venezuela for his swearing in. (Multiple reports have him on a ventilator.) But Article 231 of the Venezuelan constitution says Chavez must be sworn in on January 10th in front of the National Assembly in order to take power for another term.
The government is using the second half of article 231 as a way around this requirement:
If for any unforseen reason the President of the Republic cannot be sworn in in front of the National assembly, he/she will be so before the Supreme Court.
Si por cualquier motivo sobrevenido el Presidente o Presidenta de la RepÃºblica no pudiese tomar posesiÃ³n ante la Asamblea Nacional, lo harÃ¡ ante el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia.
The public fight over succession in Venezuela right now hinges on this sentence: Since it's preceded immediately by the sentence saying Chavez must be sworn in on the 10th in front of the Assembly, does that mean he must be sworn in on the 10th in front of the Supreme Court?
And what is the court, anyway -- the court seated in its building in Caracas? Or the members of the court, no matter where they are in the world?
Venezuela could have flown the justices to Havana, but it's unclear that that would have satisfied constitutional requirements. By saying Chavez will not be sworn in on the 10th, his lieutenants appear to have foreclosed that option. The National Assembly voted on Tuesday to let Chavez be sworn in in front of the court at a later date -- a move the supreme court has now affirmed as constitutional.
The situation is further complicated by Article 233, which states the conditions of an "absolute lack" of the president or president-elect of Venezuela -- a situation that would immediately compel an election. Death, obviously, is one possible condition; but no report indicates that condition has been met.
Otherwise, there are two theoretically viable options. Chavez can be declared "mentally or physically incapacitated" by a medical commission designated by the the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Or he can be declared by the National Assembly to have "abandoned his post."
Neither condition seems likely to be met, given support for Chavez on the court and in the National Assembly.
Over the past week, some outlets reported, members of the opposition have argued that Chavez must be considered absent and that, as head of the National Assembly, Cabello should take power on the 10th.
The opposition has not, however, appeared to be unified. Adding another contortion to the mix, on Monday the 7th, opposition leader Henrique Capriles appeared to dissent from this tactic in an interview with the television network Globovision: "We never stated that on January 10th the president-elect of the Republic will stop being president."
Both Duddy and Shifter noted that, with emotions running high among the Venezuelan people, the opposition might not want to be seen appearing to pick on an ailing leader.
But this has not been a consistent approach. Divergent reports partly reflect a lack of unity within the diverse currents of the Venezuelan opposition.
Yet finally, in the past 24 hours, a consensus may have begun to emerge on the way to proceed.
Ideally, says the BBC, the opposition wants Chavez declared temporarily absent "so a caretaker president can be installed" for a period of 90 days or more:
Chavez's permanent absence ... would trigger fresh elections within 30 days.
"They're trying to get Mr Chavez removed as quickly as possible but they also know that they don't have the resources right now to deal with a snap election," political analyst Carlos Romero told the BBC.
The opposition has called protests for the 10th, while Cabello has convoked a pro-Chavez rally for the same day. Clashes between the two groups are possible.
Any succession fight would play out publicly as a conflict over the legal interpretation of Article 231, and possibly involve Article 233. The opposition and the Chavez government will likely continue to tussle publicly.
But Are Cabello and Maduro Fighting for Power?
A former U.S. official warns against interpreting the situation in Venezuela to assume that there is a power struggle between Maduro and Cabello, citing other potential explanations for the apparently unresolved situation. Most commentators are inferring, the official said, "largely from the fact that those who are in caretaker positions while President Chavez is in Cuba have not seemingly simply declared" a new election.
In order to do so, the National Assembly would have to declare Chavez permanently absent. It could be difficult to marshal support for such a move.
Additionally, their decision not to do so may be part of a broader strategy to bolster Maduro's status when he does run for president. If Chavez is kept in a bare state of life, or if his death is covered up, and the swearing-in is cleanly evaded, Maduro could potentially govern in his stead for up to half a year. That could give the vice-president a leg up in running for the presidency. Given that Chavez publicly declared his support for a Maduro succession, this may be the dying leader's own plan for his successor.
Maduro could govern de facto for even longer if the National Assembly never declares Chavez incapacitated, temporarily or otherwise. However, the Venezuelan people might not put up with such a move.
Duddy considers any wait to establish Maduro's legitimacy a risky move, noting that whichever Chavez lieutenant runs for office after Chavez will likely face Capriles in an election. The former governor made a strong challenge to Chavez in the 2012 election, but lost, says Duddy, partly due to Chavez's good "ground game." In his analysis, it makes more sense for a Chavez successor to run for office sooner than later, while the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's vote-getting operation is still in good shape.
Whether Chavez can give Maduro a toehold may have little to do with the long-term prospects for the Bolivarian revolution if Chavez dies. The Venezuelan leader's emotional leadership style helped sustain his rule. By contrast, both Maduro and Cabello are widely considered less charismatic than their boss.
Like Castro's retreat from the spotlight, the Chavez death watch has prompted increasingly surreal statements on the part of his lieutenants. Cabello, who spoke to the National Assembly on Saturday after he was reelected, seemed to deny any role in the succession process for the contingency of death:
"Hugo Chavez Frias was elected president of the Republic, and he will continue being president of the Republic after January 10th - let nobody doubt -- to be clear -- let nobody doubt that," Cabello declared to the deputies."
"Hugo ChÃ¡vez FrÃas fue electo para ser presidente de la RepÃºblica y seguirÃ¡ siendo presidente de la RepÃºblica mÃ¡s allÃ¡ del dÃa 10 de enero, no le quede duda a nadie, bien claro, a nadie le quede duda de eso", gritÃ³ Cabello ante los diputados."