Speculation that Hugo Chavez could be suffering from a serious illness is putting attention on a predicament for the president's allies: It's unclear who could step forward if he had to step down.
Few Venezuelans are talking publicly about the possibility of 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.
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.
Election looming next year
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."
Comments on health limited
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."