Venezuelans wonder who would replace Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela – As President Hugo Chavez battles a cancer that has sidelined him for much of the past year, a group of loyal associates has stepped into the spotlight, sparking speculation across a polarized political landscape over who could replace the fiery leader should his condition force him from office.

With Chavez running for reelection in October, public talk of relinquishing power is unthinkable in his inner sanctum, where the mantra is “with Chavez everything, without Chavez nothing.” But the uncertainty created by his condition is trumping his efforts to tamp down talk of succession, say those who have had conversations with people in the upper echelon of the populist government.

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“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.

“Diosdado Cabello is one of Chavez’s centaurs,” said Luis Alberto Butto, a former army lieutenant and university professor who has written extensively about the military influence in Chavez’s government. “When they had to cross the desert, they did it together. Later, they have shared the fruits of power, together. This makes one think that Diosdado Cabello’s strength inside the party is nothing trivial.”

Chavez rewards that kind of loyalty: Cabello is now president of the National Assembly as well as a pivotal leader in the president’s all-powerful United Socialist Party.

More popular with the public are two longtime cabinet members, Vice President Elias Jaua, a former student radical who has built important links with rural groups, and Nicolas Maduro, who as foreign minister has energetically hopscotched the globe. Maduro is also well regarded by Cuba’s communist government, Venezuela’s closest ally and has been at the president’s side in recent months.

“Some see that as a sign that he’s being groomed as a successor, that he has Chavez’s ear as things move forward,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a Drexel University professor whose upcoming book, “We Created Him,” explores Venezuelan social movements and Chavez’s rise.

Semtei, who was part of the movement that helped Chavez consolidate power, said the president might be moved to go with family.

Adan Chavez introduced a young Hugo Chavez, then more interested in baseball than revolution, to radical political thought and Marxist guerrillas. He has also had close ties to the Castro brothers in Cuba, which has helped Venezuela improve its intelligence apparatus.

Turning to family

The president also has an option in his daughter Rosa Virginia, who frequently stands next to him during speeches and is married to the minister of science, Jorge Arreaza. The two were often with Chavez in Cuba in recent months as he received medical care.

“The past shows us that presidents with so much power traditionally choose someone within their family, like Peron,” said Semtei, referring to Argentine strongman Juan Peron, who upon his 1974 death was succeeded by his wife, Isabel.

None of those around Chavez, though, has his potent oratorical skills or his ability to connect with the poor masses, a challenge for the United Socialist Party should the president bow out.

Indeed, many of those in his inner circle — including Cabello — have lost elections and fared poorly in polls when eligible voters were asked to pick between them and the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles .

“None of them has the leadership, the ability to project with the Venezuelan people with the magnitude, intensity and profound nature that Chavez can,” Butto said. “That is the misfortune and the dilemma for the party.”

Some observers intimately familiar with Chavismo — as the president’s movement is known — say that if the president’s situation worsens markedly there could be chaos because Chavez himself may not name a successor. Under that line of thinking, a messiah-like leader cannot fathom leaving power, even with the end staring him in the face.

“He will not cede power as long as he is alive,” said Chavez’s first defense minister, Raul Salazar, a former general who had once closely worked with the president. “He will take to the campaign in a wheelchair, on crutches, any way he can. The only thing that will stop him is death.”

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