Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (Photo: Reuters)
Few Venezuelans are talking publicly about the possibility of President Hugo Chavez leaving office, partly because top government officials and close relatives have repeatedly said the president is recuperating in Cuba following surgery there two weeks ago.
Still, Chavez's silence and seclusion since the operation have spurred growing talk about his health, stirring fears among some supporters that their leader could be seriously ill.
The speculation has prompted some to ponder what would happen if failing health were to force Chavez to relinquish power. Until recently, even contemplating that possibility would have been considered absurd.
Under Venezuela's constitution, Vice President Elias Jaua would take the president's place during "temporary" absences of up to 90 days. And Jaua would serve the rest of Chavez's six-year term if the socialism-preaching president were to die or resign.
With a presidential election looming next year, such a scenario might put Jaua and other ruling party leaders in a tough position.
None of Chavez's close confidants share his charisma and knack for connecting with Venezuela's poor majority. That constituency has ultimately decided elections in this politically divided South American country.
Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East, believes the future of Chavez's political movement would largely depend on whether ill health prevented Chavez from designating a successor.
"There is no second-in-command in the Chavez movement," Ellner said. "If Chavez is unable to endorse anyone, there will inevitably be dissension." Ellner said the situation would be much different if Chavez threw his support behind a would-be successor.
"There is a great sense of loyalty within the Chavez movement," he said. "If Chavez himself is unable to run for physical reasons, but endorses a given candidate, the movement will not fall apart." While there are no obvious candidates, some observers believe the president might tap Jaua or Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's energy minister.
Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who joined a 1992 coup attempt led by Chavez, was once perceived as Chavez's closest confidant. But Cabello's standing seems to have faded since he lost a 2008 re-election bid as the governor of Miranda state to a prominent opposition leader.
Venezuelan officials have limited their comments on Chavez's health to saying he's recuperating but have provided few details.
Jaua told an auditorium packed with government supporters Saturday that Chavez "is recuperating to continue the battle." He condemned Chavez's opponents for speculating about the president's health, accusing them of using the president's surgery to score political points before the next presidential election.
"They know they cannot beat our commander, Hugo Chavez, in an election," he said, adding: "Chavez is going to be around for a long time." Meanwhile, Chavez's Twitter stream has been active while not providing any information about his health. One message on Friday saluted Venezuela's military on a holiday marking a decisive independence battle.
Three messages appeared within 30 minutes Saturday afternoon, including one mentioning visits by Chavez's daughter Rosines and grandchildren. "Ah, what happiness it is to receive this shower of love!" the Twitter message read. "God bless them!" Nobody has heard Chavez publicly speak since he told Venezuelan state television by telephone on June 12 that he was quickly recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. He said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.
It remains unclear when he will return to Venezuela.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuelans on Friday to wish for Chavez's complete recovery and express their "most authentic love so that his health is re-established." "The battle that President Chavez is waging for his health must be everyone's battle: the battle for life, for the immediate future of our fatherland," Maduro added.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said he thinks some people "are jumping the gun" by expressing doubts on Chavez's health and raising questions about a potential successor.
"I imagine that Chavez is enjoying this because people seem so concerned about his health," Tinker Salas said.
"I can imagine him joking about all this speculation in front of a crowd of supporters" sometime in the near future.