“There are two things they talk about: how the opposition is doing and whether it is growing, and they talk about how sick the chief is and who would replace him,” said Eduardo Semtei, a former government official who had befriended Chavez’s elder brother, Adan, and worked closely with other top officials.
Chavez, a messiah-like leader who has amassed broad powers in 13 years of rule, has tried to dispel rumors that his condition would stop him from campaigning, let alone ruling this oil-rich country. This week, he dominated the airwaves, giving three long, rambling speeches spiced with warnings about Western imperialism and American-style capitalism. The appearances began Monday, when he sang folk songs and gave a thunderous speech after registering for his fourth presidential campaign since 1998.
He told the crowd that while the opposition was engaged in a “psychological war” by raising questions about his purported successor, his ministers have been focused on ensuring that the government is running smoothly.
“They have deployed and demonstrated that there is a collective government here, an efficient government, a government of the people and for the people,” he said.
Chavez’s inner circle
The president’s assertions of normalcy aside, Venezuelans have been engrossed in the drama playing out in government circles behind closed doors – discussions over what direction Chavez’s so-called revolution would take should failing health force the maximum leader to cede power and anoint a successor.
A handful of the president’s closest aides – as well as his brother Adan and one of his daughters, Rosa Virginia – have become increasingly visible as Chavez has struggled through three surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and weeks of convalescence in Cuba.
Among them is Diosdado Cabello, whose name means “God-given hair.” A beefy former soldier, Cabello participated with Chavez in a failed and bloody military uprising in 1992 against President Carlos Andres Perez, landing the two of them and several other officers in jail.
Cabello, though, is best remembered for his allegiance a decade ago, when Chavez was briefly ousted in a 48-hour coup. Cabello was vice president and became the de facto president, feverishly planning Chavez’s successful return to power from an ornate meeting room in the presidential palace.