Some Venezuelans see power struggles brewing during Chavez's absence
An image of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez sits between two military hats during a mass in support of him in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (AP / Ramon Espinosa)
Ian James, The Associated Press
Published Friday, December 14, 2012 7:04PM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 14, 2012 8:50PM EST
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Hugo Chavez's most influential allies are projecting an image of unity while the president recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba, standing side-by-side and pledging to uphold his socialist movement no matter what happens.
But with Chavez's outlook increasingly darkening, some Venezuelans believe power struggles are brewing between ambitious lieutenants long in the president's shadow.
One-man rule has been the glue holding together Chavez's movement, and he hadn't groomed any clear successor until he surprised Venezuelans with the announcement last weekend that if cancer forced him from office he wanted his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, to take over.
The president's diverse "Chavismo" movement includes groups from radical leftists to moderates, and long-hidden divisions could flare, at least behind-the-scenes, if Chavez is no longer in charge.
"In politics, everything is possible," said Gustavo Chourio, a bookseller in downtown Caracas, adding that he expects conflict between Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro leads a civilian-political wing that is considered to be closely aligned with Cuba's communist government. Cabello, a former military officer, is thought to have strong ties to the military -- a relationship he highlighted when he spoke at a Mass for Chavez held at Venezuela's largest military base.
Analysts agree that political battles are likely, if not inevitable.
"It is almost certain that an intense power struggle is already under way within Chavismo," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington.
Shifter said key figures in the president's camp, including Maduro and Cabello, have long had to suppress personal ambition as Chavez monopolized decision-making.
"With Chavez no longer on the scene, and the power vacuum exposed, the situation becomes extremely unpredictable," Shifter said. "The fact that Maduro is Chavez's designated successor gives him the upper hand for the time being, but that is unlikely to last long. The others vying for power are wily and ruthless. From the outset, the Chavez regime has been about power -- including lots of money -- and now all of that is up for grabs."
Maduro and Cabello, for their part, showed a united front this week by appearing together at events along with other Cabinet ministers and military commanders. Speaking alongside Cabello and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez on Wednesday, Maduro said: "We're more united than ever."
The 58-year-old Chavez underwent his fourth cancer-related operation Tuesday after announcing that tests had found the illness had come back despite previous operations, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The government said Thursday that Chavez suffered complications in surgery but that he was recovering favourably.
If Chavez were to die or be unable to continue in office, the constitution says new elections should be held within 30 days. If that happened before Chavez's Jan. 10 swearing-in, the president of the National Assembly would take over temporarily until elections were held.
Before his surgery, Chavez acknowledged such a scenario. He said on television Saturday night, with Maduro and Cabello seated beside him, that if he was unable to continue as president, Maduro should be elected to take his place and lead the socialist movement.
That appearance by Chavez, during a quick trip home after 10 days of treatment in Havana, was an indication that jostling for power had already begun, said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank .
"If there were consensus, Chavez would not have found it necessary to fly home from Havana last weekend, in the middle of delicate medical treatments, to publicly name a successor," Isacson said.
In the short-term, he said, Chavez's allies know it's in their best interest to fall in behind Maduro if a new election is called, and the president's endorsement could give Maduro enough clout to lead for months or years.
"Instability could come later, if President Chavez dies and the new leader of Chavismo lacks his charisma and ability to hold the coalition together," Isacson said. "At that point, Chavismo would be likely to splinter."
For now, though, many of Chavez's supporters seem united in their concern and sympathy.
On the streets of Caracas, the government put up new banners on lampposts this week reading: "Now more than ever, with Chavez." The president's supporters wrote and painted get-well messages for him on a giant banner in downtown Caracas on Friday.
Many said that even though he seems to face long odds in his fight against cancer, they still hold out hope he might recover.
State television has been showing a collage of moments in Chavez's life, including appearances alongside Fidel Castro, snippets of his 2006 speech on the floor of the U.N. when he called President George W. Bush "the devil," and images of him rallying supporters wearing the red beret from his days as an army paratroop commander.
Some of Chavez's supporters expressed fears about political battles emerging, while others said the country's people wouldn't stand for it.
Mariana Salas, who sells orange juice and fruit at a roadside stand in the working-class slum of Petare, said she trusts that Chavistas won't turn on each other if the president dies.
"If it turns out that some of them do, they should be expelled from the party because Chavez gave a very clear order: Maduro is the man we should follow," she said.
Maduro, Chavez's longtime foreign minister and a former bus driver, has stepped into the void during Chavez's absence. On Thursday night, his voice was hoarse as he spoke at a political rally, pledging not to give in to the country's "bourgeoisie."
"I swear to you ... we will never betray the Venezuelan people!" he said, adding: "Together we're going to defend the peace, stability and the future of our children, with our own lives if necessary!"
But Maduro will find it difficult to control the various factions in Chavez's socialist party, said Vicente Torrijos, a political analyst at Rosario University in Bogota, Colombia. "Maduro doesn't have that charisma, nor the ability, much less the political capital," he said.
Torrijos expects the fervour inspired by Chavez to continue, but he predicts differences among the president's followers will eventually "disrupt the revolution." The military is likely to "influence political decisions more and more," he said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.